Tuesday, November 9, 2010

School closings on Front

Initially saw this Globe and Mail article online through a news alert, but popped down to the common room today to glance at fronts and noticed Kate Hammer's piece on the change at the Toronto District School Board and its effect on pending school closure was bottom-front.
Nothing earth-shattering in the article (the Toronto Sun's Moira MacDonald expressed similar thoughts, her own, on Oct. 26) as the only board that has successfully avoided the top-to-bottom review of its facilities and accommodation is the TDSB. With a few contentious decisions (I giggled at the midnight meeting remark-- there's a few people outside TO who know all about those) behind it, several trustees attuned to the review process are leaving at the end of the month and are to be replaced by anti-closure candidates.
They launched and completed eight ARCs (accommodation review committees) in 2009/2010 and approved the closing of nine schools, generating almost $50-million in savings on operational and maintenance costs.
That cost-saving consensus may be lost. The new board appears split between pro- and anti-closing candidates, many of whom were backed by the teachers unions, said Scott Harrison, the trustee for Ward 19 (Scarborough Centre) who lost a bid for re-election to David Smith, a candidate who opposed closing schools.
And the proposed closings the new board will consider in coming months will likely face staunch opposition.
“I think this will be very problematic for the board because with fewer and fewer students every year, you can’t maintain your stock hold of properties, i.e. schools, like you have in the past,” he said.
The piece does put a number of (hopefully) misconceptions in play. I particularly loved the trustee saying a 4,000-student-a-year decline is not that big a deal because it's only eight students per school. Awesome. I suppose you'll just bus kids around every September to spread out the demographic changes that equally? Doubtful.
I also found it to rely heavily on financial issues. Closing nine schools = $50 million in savings. Outgoing trustee Josh Matlow noting the new board will have to face financial issues. What about the facility question? Most TO media gushed about the new high school that opened in September, an innovative approach that provides a modern educational facility combined with some private-sector (residential) development.
Another misconception is the description of what school-closure review committees are supposed to accomplish. "ARCs are accommodation review committees: panels of parents, community members and educators charged with identifying schools that are underused and can be closed or consolidated." No. That's not what they do. ARCs don't identify the initial group of schools considered by the committee. Trustees do, on recommendation of their senior staff members. They may make recommendations to close (a) school(s), that agree or disagree with the recommendation(s) already received by trustees from administrators. ARCs provide trustees with opinion and advice based on the committee's examination of the data and the communities' input. It might seem like I'm arguing semantics, but it's phrasing like this that leaves people with the impression ARCs make decisions on school closures. That misconception then amplifies and perpetuates the anger when communities see trustees disagreeing with ARC recommendation(s). Anger that leads to things like the Community Schools Alliance.
Enough about that.
Are there options out there that could lead to fewer school closings in Toronto? I would say yes, but many of them might be reliant on the TDSB squeezing every possible penny out of the Toronto Lands Corp. that it controls. Selling unused vacant properties would net some one-time revenues that could be used to sustain the cost of running under-capacity schools. The bigger revenue -- outside of any continuing pity money trickling down from the ministry -- might be from setting up leasehold agreements at underused facilities. The government created the policy early this year to allow for space to be leased for governmental and non-profit community use. The TLC is an opportunity to develop some leasehold agreements with tenants that could see revenues develop to help modernize school facilities for community use and instruction, as well as cover some costs for the non-instructional space under lease.
The only media I've seen touch the TLC in the past 18 months has been the National Post, which I briefly mentioned in a previous post.
To the larger issue-- as I've continually mentioned, this TDSB process will continue to be instructive for those within the big city and then the rest of us (can I say us when I'm here temporarily?) who've already been through this issue, multiple times.