When considering school closings in Ontario there is little doubt that we need to reorganize our school system, but the current process for doing it is profoundly broken.
Enrolment in Ontario schools has dropped by 120,000 pupils over the past decade. There is significant excess capacity in the education system and the austerity minded McGuinty government is coaxing schools boards into closing schools, especially underused, small urban schools.
The province has created the Accomodation Review Committe Process to handle school closings. The ARC Process is the procedure that school boards must follow if they think a school needs to be closed. The ARC Process mandates the factors to consider, the timelines to follow and the public consultation that must happen.
This seems good and proper ‘on paper’, but in reality it gets quite messy. What hasn’t been accounted for, and what has been missing in the government’s funding formula for years, is that schools are not merely places where children are educated. Schools have many other functions and meanings.
Schools are a social hub in many neighbourhoods, like the arena or the grocery store. They are one of several “community anchors” where neighbours meet and connect. Sometimes people are there for school events like a play or ‘Open House’, and other times it’s for a yoga class in the gym, a soccer game on the back field, chatting as the kids work off steam on the playground equipment or just saying ‘Hi’ as they pick up the kids at the end of the day. These activities can and do happen in other locations, but it’s unlikely that they’re as organized around the local community as when they happen at the local school.
More significant than the social function of the local school is it’s symbolic meaning. The local school provides a link to the past for some people. They find it comforting that the school they attended is still there, serving their community. Many parents like the continuity of siblings attending the same school.
Schools are also a symbol of a vibrant, healthy community and a hope for the future. When real estate agents try to sell buyers on a house, one of the features they highlight is proximity to good, local schools. Schools are on the list of things that make a neighbourhood desirable, and so losing a school is seen as a step backwards that may result in lower property values.
Urban communities trying to revitalize and grow will find it difficult to attract young families without a local school. Young parents aren’t thrilled with putting 4,5 & 6 years olds on a school bus in the morning. They like the comfort of having their little ones taking their first steps out into the world close to home.
Consequently, people don’t give up their schools willingly. No matter how rational and sensible the arguments are, no matter how much the figures add up, people want to keep their local schools. So they fight to keep them open, through the ARC Process. The collateral damage of this fight is divided communities as neighbouring schools are pitted against each other, trying to prove that they, not the star bellied sneetches, should get to keep their school.
The ARC Process is ponderous and almost cruel in the way it lets communities believe they have a chance to save their school. Some schools have to close. There have to be losers and nobody, not the school board or the Provincial Government, wants to be the ones to tell committed, angry citizens that they’ve lost.
We need two things to solve this problem:
- Create an independent, arms length body to quickly and efficiently review board applications to close schools. Give them power to say ‘yes, or ‘no’ so the school board can get on with the business of reorganizing. This shouldn’t take more than 60 days. Treat it like taking off a band-aid. It’s got to be done, so do it quickly so the healing can start.
- Adjust the funding formula to recognize that schools are not just learning factories, but at the heart of communities. If we want strong neighbourhoods lets put our money where our mouth is and financially support the things that create connections. All of this pays off in better, healthier citizens, lower crime rates, improved economic growth, etc.