A look at potential school closures across Toronto reveals that it could affect communities with the greatest need.
Last week the Toronto District School Board released a much-anticipated list of schools under review for closure as the beleaguered board looks to reduce expenses and raise funds for capital projects.
The TDSB is in a difficult situation, as it faces financial challenges and accompanying tough decisions to be made that will have an impact on communities across the city.
Like the Toronto Community Housing Corporation and the Toronto Transit Commission, the TDSB has a large backlog of needed repairs: the board would need to spend an estimated $2 billion just to keep its current schools in a state of good repair, and this number will grow to $6 billion by 2019, once program and facility upgrades are included [PDF]. At the same time, as needs increase, student enrolment in Toronto has declined. Many of the TDSB’s schools were built in the 1960s and ’70s when attendance was increasing, and as the buildings now reach the point in their lifespan where they require large capital infusions for upkeep, some do not have the student body to justify the cost. Enrolment has declined by 13 per cent since 2001 (the equivalent of 29,000 students), and is projected to decline by 4,000 more students per year.
Selling off underused properties would help fix the gap in both the board’s operating and capital budgets, and is one of 13 directives recently given by the Ontario government to the financially troubled board.
The logic is that many of the TDSB’s schools—130 of them—are categorized by the board’s own metrics as underutilized, a classification that arises when less than 65 per cent of a school’s capacity is used. With so many underused schools, the argument goes that it’s time to right-size the board’s assets.
For the most part, the TDSB and its trustees do not share this view. They argue that selling schools in order to fund the capital budget and give relief to the operating budget is short-sighted, and fails to address a governance model that neither gives Canada’s largest school board the funding they need, nor any revenue tools to meet those needs.
The TDSB will have a special meeting on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. to discuss the issue. They have until Friday to meet all 13 of the province’s directives, and have agreed to 10 so far.
Regardless of the outcome, the choices made will have an impact on communities across the city. Many of the schools shortlisted for review are also the site of daycares, adult programs such as English-as-a-second-language instruction, and other after-school uses such as local community organizations and sports programs, which are not considered in calculating a school’s space utilization.
The map above illustrates which schools are under review. The list released by the TDSB includes 17 geographic clusters—14 groups of elementary schools and three groups of high schools. It is likely that one school in many of these clusters will be closed. With the release of the list, it will be up to review panels—made up of trustees, parents, and other stakeholders—to examine each cluster and advise which schools might be closed. Not every school will be closed, but up to nine of the 60 schools will be closed and sold. (Under Ontario law, other school boards serving Toronto—Catholic and French Language—would have the first opportunity to purchase the surplus properties, followed by the City of Toronto. Private owners could then bid after that.)
Seven elementary schools in the west end of the old City of Toronto, including Kensington Community, Lord Lansdowne, Ryerson, and Montrose Junior are potential closure targets. To the northwest, 13 elementary schools and five high schools are targeted in or adjacent to the old City of York. Most of these schools are located in lower-income Neighbourhood Improvement Areas (formerly known as Priority Neighbourhoods). Similar situations can be seen in Downsview-Amesbury, in central Scarborough, and in Rexdale. Of the 48 elementary schools facing potential closure, 68 per cent of them are in priority neighbourhoods.
Since schoolyards are used as park space outside of school hours, selling the land for residential development could result in the permanent loss of public space, and other shared amenities that contribute to the well-being of a community. A handful of non-binding member motions at this week’s city council meeting acknowledge the secondary benefits schools provide neighbourhoods across the city. Despite the unclear future of these schools, one thing is clearly suggested by the map above: the loss of these community hubs will disproportionately impact priority neighbourhoods who rely most on the services provided.