Ontario’s Ministry of Education report on the Toronto District School Board landscape is more than politics, the future of public high schools are at stake.
In January, Ontario’s Minister of Education, Liz Sandals, handed down 13 directives based on a report identifying Board-wide deficiencies. Over a series of meetings, TDSB trustees voted on these directives and submitted a proposal that is now under review by the province. The directive in question is the capital plan dealing with potential school closures or boundary changes.
An original list of 60 underutilized Toronto public schools will be studied to determine whether or not the school will stay open, move locations, or close down. From this, another ten schools, eight of which are high schools, is being examined in the first review round this year. What do parents and teachers make of the move?
In order to identify the underlying logistics separating one school’s future standing from the next, the Board divided clusters of high schools into catchment areas for a more comprehensive search with their findings.
TDSB sets the record straight
Although 20 high schools on the chopping block are running at 65-percent student capacity or less, the TDSB is assuring the public not all would cease operations.
“To be clear, people are calling it the school closure list and it is not,” says TDSB spokesperson, Ryan Bird. “If high schools are included on the list of schools to study that does not mean they are automatically slated for closure.”
The Board’s eleven longitudinal studies will be conducted over the next three years, looking at more factors than student enrollment alone. Building conditions, specialty programs, and transportation accessibility are some of the other variables that the TDSB will take into account.
On a larger scale, the studies would also consider the surrounding neighbourhood impact, specifically focusing on feeder schools. Since local secondary schools are the main education hub in a community, relocating or shutting one down could affect the future state of elementary and middle schools that feed into them. Shuffling the high school deck marginally could send hundreds of students out of district to receive their schooling.
“When a number of schools are involved in one of these studies, it just means that there is always a potential impact on other schools,” says Bird. “The fact is, if you change one, the others are affected.”
Before the final plan is drawn up, TDSB administration has decided to start tabling and discussing ideas with members of the various communities on the list. This scheduled consultation process, which is carried out during the time periods allotted to each school cluster, will happen every year until 2017.
“A potential closure is always possible, but it’s not a foregone conclusion,” says Bird. “That is exactly why I would tell parents that we would want to talk to them as part of our community consultation.”
The parent perspective
Between schoolyard provincial regulations and municipal amendments, parents are usually stuck in the middle, playing possum.
The Board has been facing an estimated $3.5-billion repair backlog and this property sale is an attempt to raise funds for the shortfall. Due to the capital project the Ontario government placed upon the TDSB, local trustees have already agreed to sell 20 closed locations. This included former high school Sir Sanford Fleming, which could later be occupied by childcare facilities and private schools.
This TDSB deficit, which goes beyond secondary schools, jumpstarted a grassroots parent advocacy group that was created solely on the premise of bringing awareness to poor public school building conditions.
“We were heartened by the province getting more involved,” says Krista Wylie, Fix Our Schools. “We feel like the province and the TDSB have been at loggerheads for over a decade, where one just blames the other.”
Wylie, a parent of two students enrolled at TDSB schools, is aware of the trials and tribulations that come with lobbying various levels of government for educational reform. The constant back-and-forth amongst the two parties has come with a price: seldom does any task get completed.
“The government can find money if there is a political will to do so and for too long its been under-funding public education,” says Wylie. “We think our kids are going to school in buildings that are falling apart and are, in many cases, in such a state of disrepair that they are becoming unsafe.”
Class is not dismissed
With the potential closure or boundary changes being rolled out over the next three years, current and prospective secondary schools teachers might have a tougher time finding jobs.
There is a staffing process that acknowledges student enrollment, which the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) has negotiated with the TDSB based on qualifications and seniority. This provides high school teachers with priority access to system-wide vacancies if their school is being closed.
“The closure of schools generally means movement of teachers into other teaching positions with the TDSB,” says OSSTF Toronto bargaining unit vice-president, Leslie Wolfe. “Unless, of course, there aren’t enough funded positions in which case teachers could lose jobs.”
Less qualified teachers also means fewer specialized classes available to high schools students. In result, the breadth and depth of course selection across the public school system is hindered. Due in part to the lack of capital the TDSB earns, the OSSTF believes teacher class plans and student career choices will suffer.
“When I see any school on a school closure or boundary change list, what I immediately think about is that we are so focused on immediacy in terms of finances, that long-term planning is completely overlooked,” says Wolfe. “The geographic location of the school for teacher purposes is not important, where it’s important is for student success purposes.”
Extra-curricular activities and transportation are overlooked aspects that can benefit or weaken both a student’s involvement within the immediate community and a teacher’s productivity inside and outside of the classroom.
“The closure or the sale of a publically owned property to meet current fiscal needs doesn’t take into consideration the fact that in a few years down the road when a school is again required in a particular area, it will be too expensive for the Board to purchase property to build a school,” says Wolfe.