Closures Are Back. How Many Schools Do Communities Need?
Updated: Mar 8
School closures have not been on the public agenda in Ontario for some time now due to a moratorium that was enacted by the provincial government in 2017. The Ontario Public School Boards Association (OPSBA) is calling for an end to the moratorium. This is a sign of things to come for school districts that need to balance enrolments between schools.
“We have shifting populations, and we end up having some schools that are underutilized and others that are bursting at the seams. We need to be able to right-size those schools, and sometimes that means consolidating schools or school closures.” Rachel Chernos Lin, Chair, Toronto District School Board
Pupil Accommodation Reviews
School closure reviews, referred to as pupil accommodation reviews in Ontario, are all consuming processes for communities and school districts to endure. I have overseen the administration of many school closure reviews. Sometimes they happen for singular schools due to low enrolment or facility decline. Often, they involve multiple schools with changes to program locations and school grade structures. Several of the reviews I was involved with were system-wide in scope, affecting every community across the school district jurisdiction.
To close schools in Ontario, school districts have adhered to the process elements of the ministry’s Pupil Accommodation Review Guidelines. The Guidelines are a genuine attempt to ensure public input in the difficult decision-making responsibilities of school districts. It can take the better part of a full school year in Ontario to close a school, with detailed requirements for public participation.
Many adults, unfamiliar with current educational issues, are passionate about school closures that involve schools they attended many years earlier. Municipalities, especially the smaller ones, equate school closures directly with their local economy. There is a lot of emotion from a wide cross section of people. More affluent neighbourhoods often have a distinct advantage. Watching students advocate for their school is often the hardest thing of the process to experience.
There are always ideas about how to improve school closure reviews, and Ontario’s mandated process is no exception. There are many considerations, including what public participation should look like and how it should happen. However, no one is ever truly happy at the end of a school closure review.
What This Means
OPSBA is cognizant of the implications and significant effort necessary to undertake school closure reviews. Nonetheless, the call for an end to the moratorium is motivated by the need to improve opportunities for students. There is a legitimate and urgent need for school districts to re-gain control of their local operations to account for demographic and related changes that have happened over the past seven years.
But the necessary constructs for school district operations have changed. We must leverage this moment to re-consider how school operations can promote a new vision for community schools. There needs to be a comprehensive reassessment of the provincial benchmarks that drive school district operations in Ontario.
Operational Funding and Benchmarks for System Change
Ontario school districts operate from provincially allocated per-pupil funding. While a variety of supplementary mechanisms exist to support low enrolment and rural schools, operations are generally optimized when schools achieve the “sweet spot” between enrolment and space availability calculated by theoretical classroom loadings. A school with 500 students, but classrooms that add up to space for 1000 students, is considered to operate at 50% capacity, regardless of how surplus space is actually used or could be used.
Operational funding and benchmarks driven by enrolment are out of sync with what community schools need to be. Ontario is lagging the system thinking and action happening globally through purposeful system change that promotes human-centered learning for students. Ontario school districts are being asked to lead change through operational system structures that do not align with the type of change required.
How Many Community Schools?
Districts need to operate within budget, and school closures are sometimes necessary. But the number of schools a community needs must now account for school operations that can advance an equitable range of learning experiences, online and in the community, through meaningful collaboration and partnerships.
School districts must resist the urge to equate larger enrolments with program viability. Instead of loading classrooms, operational support for human-centered learning promotes personalized, competency-based community schools through unique learning plans for every student with the fluid and seamless assistance of community partners. Operational support for personalized, competency-based community schools can also assist, and be assisted by, the education related calls to action of of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
There is a backlog of school facility upgrades required for Ontario schools. Added to this is the need for adaptation and mitigation improvements to address the climate emergency. These operational considerations relate to, among other things, climate shelters, structural upgrades, digital transformation, student transportation, and the program locations that frame student attendance boundaries.
All of these operational realities present an opportunity to engage a larger discussion and consideration about how to fund and support community schools.
A Way Forward – Per School Funding
School districts and participating organizations such as OPSBA can advocate for a change in the way funding for school operations is calculated and distributed. The guiding operational process moving forward should not involve how many buildings a school district deserves - based upon enrolment, but how many community schools a community needs for a vibrant future. Our communities need per school funding. This operational shift can help advance a new vision for community schools, not as a drain upon the public purse, but as a resource to be maximized to the benefit of community development overall.
People need and deserve an opportunity to build a vision for community schools that can account for local conditions. Operational costs can be equated with the value added from stronger connections with community services and businesses, indigenous peoples, healthier families, opportunities for local innovation, and climate emergency adaptation and mitigation. Per school funding would improve the capacity of school districts, municipalities and community organizations to work together - knowing that there will be a full commitment to long term stability and success.
This overview, offered from the Ontario, Canada perspective, has the potential for relevant application everywhere. There are things that school districts can be doing right now to promote the necessary transition to new age community schools such as school and student equity assessments, facility upgrading assessments, program effectiveness reviews, attendance boundary analysis, community awareness campaigns and outreach to community services, local business and municipal leads.
This is the time to think big – to lead change before change leads us.
Phil Dawes, March 2023