Education minister reveals 300 schools in Ontario considered for closure

TORONTO – Three hundred schools in Ontario are on the chopping block, the education minister said Thursday, two days after she refused to provide a figure she called “arbitrary.”

While the closure decisions are made by school boards, the opposition parties are slamming the Liberal government for a lack of transparency about the process, and say the guidelines for those closure considerations need to be changed.

The Progressive Conservatives have called for a moratorium on school closures and a review of those guidelines. The NDP launched a petition Thursday to call for the same measures as the PCs and to fix the “broken” formula for determining which schools might be shut down.

Briefing notes prepared for the education minister that the NDP obtained through a freedom-of-information request list problems with the current formula.

“Utilization does not typically recognize all programs/pupils currently using school space,” such as adult day school, programs like English as a Second Language, continuing education and child-care programs, the note reads.

“Buildings used for these programs/pupils appear as underutilized/empty in current utilization calculations even if they are at full capacity. If these buildings are closed/sold, there may not be accessible space available to support those programs.”

The government has said only schools not at full capacity are being shut down, but NDP deputy leader Jagmeet Singh said the briefing document shows that’s not the case.

“They are not measuring the actual capacity of the school,” he said. “They’re not actually able to measure what’s actually going on in the schools and they’re saying, ‘Oh, we’re just shutting down schools that are not being used.’ It’s just a complete betrayal of the trust with people.”

Education Minister Mitzie Hunter said Thursday that the school boards consider a number of factors.

“Schools are looking at a number of different considerations during the review,” she said. “It does not necessarily result in a closure. They’re looking sometimes at what the boundaries are, the conditions of the school. They’re getting input from all sides.”

The guidelines were updated in 2015 to require boards to get feedback from communities, she said.

Hunter told reporters Tuesday she wouldn’t give an “arbitrary number” of schools up for possible closure and walked away from follow-up questions.

She was not in question period Wednesday, but told the legislature Thursday that there are 43 reviews currently underway involving 300 schools and in the 2016-17 academic year, school boards have decided to close 19 schools.

The NDP discovered through another freedom-of-information request that 277 schools have closed since 2011 – that number comes from a total of 333 schools closed with 56 replacement ones opening.

Susan MacKenzie, with the Ontario Alliance Against School Closures, said Hunter’s “arbitrary” comment was a “slap in the face” to Ontarians. It’s an important number to know, MacKenzie said.

“For one thing they’re public assets, but more importantly there’s communities that are going to be wiped out because of the school closures and the province needs to know about it whether it’s up in Bruce Mines, Ont., or downtown Toronto,” she said.

Hunter and the infrastructure minister sent a letter to school boards Monday telling them it is the government’s “strong preference” that before closures, they fully explore sharing facilities between the four English, French, public and Catholic school systems. Of the 4,900 publicly funded schools in Ontario, 39 have joint-use arrangements, in which students from one or more boards use the same building.

Since coming to power in 2003, the Liberals have increased per-student funding by 63 per cent and invested more than $16 billion in school infrastructure, Hunter said.

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