Closing schools not the answer!

Schools are at the heart of most communities and to close them based on budget constraints is to rip at the fabric of neighbourhoods.  Closing schools is not the right response to declining enrolments, writes Cathy Dandy. Toronto Star Published on Feb 02 2015

Schools must close! This has been the cry for 18 years now as successive provincial governments continue to create a crisis in order to extract money from the education budget. School boards, easy targets because of some dysfunctional trustee antics, are attacked. “Under-enrolled! Inefficient use of resources!” cry the mandarins who developed the formula to measure school use. In these hard financial times, when the provincial government is facing billion-dollar deficits, these arguments might sound rational.

But the funding formula that drives the provincial hand-wringing has two major flaws — there is no evidence to suggest the numbers are in the best interests of students, and the numbers ignore the fact that these schools are a community investment. The funding formula was created to pay for a certain number of square feet containing a teacher and 30 students and that’s it.

In the last 18 years, our understanding of learning and the brain has advanced in wonderful ways. Success in school, we now know, is not based on the factory model of putting all kids through the same mill and testing for success. That route resulted in many students dropping out or achieving marginal results. Now we know that schools should not be large factories but a size that allows administrators and teachers to know who they are teaching. We know, too, that schools should offer out-of-the-ordinary programs that engage kids, such as culinary arts and robotics. That requires space. Just because these buildings can hold 2,000 students, doesn’t mean they should.

So what do we do with the rest of the space? Well, I’m glad you asked. That’s the other amazing development in the last 18 years. Many other jurisdictions have embraced the idea that these public spaces should not be thought of merely as schools but as public commons. They integrate education, health, mental health and seniors’ services by bringing different levels of government together and placing those services in the public space of schools. A process is used to tailor this to individual community needs and it results in citizens having access to a multi-purpose hub. It’s not a new idea but it has finally been acted upon — except in Ontario.

The call to close schools is because our siloed Ministry of Education has yet to see the potential of joining with other ministries and making proper use of this vital space. By collaborating with other ministries and governments to deliver community-specific programming in a co-owned hub, the public capital money they have available is reinvested in schools instead of private leased space. That makes good economic sense.

Last May, over 100 people from provincial, municipal, and school board levels of government came together to examine the barriers to wider adoption of integrated use of schools. This idea of a co-ordinated approach to funding and using school space has traction here and with small-town mayors who understand the impact of the narrowed vision that dictates that enrolment is the only criterion for whether a school should stay open. Advocates of this approach have begun to organize and press for stronger alignment between municipalities and school boards. Keeping schools open for education and other public services works in rural, suburban and urban communities. It also means schools are there for future generations of students.

Schools are at the heart of most communities and to close them based on the funding formula is to rip at the fabric of neighbourhoods. The factory model of education and siloed use of school space is dead. Let’s stop the cry for closure and move into the 21st century with a robust vision of how to use and fund our public space.
Cathy Dandy is a former TDSB trustee and a member of the steering committee of Community Assets for Everyone (CAFÉ).