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Ontario school boards have recommended closing 121 schools in Ontario over the next three years, hitting rural communities the hardest, according to a new report by People for Education.
The study, based on numbers provided by the province’s 72 school boards this spring, was an attempt to paint a clearer picture of an emotionally-charged issue that cuts to the heart of communities, said Annie Kidder, executive director of the research and advocacy group.
School closures have generated protests and outrage from families across the province during the current school year, but how many of the province’s 4,900 schools are vulnerable has been subject to dispute.
See a full list of the schools set to close
Education Minister Mitzie Hunter has said up to 300 schools are under review for possible shuttering as a result of low enrolment or disrepair.
But organizations like the Ontario Alliance Against School Closures have estimated that twice as many — about 600 — are on the chopping block and have called for a moratorium on “these reckless, hurried and undemocratic” decisions.
“The numbers we were hearing were all over the map,” says Kidder. To get a clearer picture, People for Education collected data from boards and tallied the number of schools actually in the process of being closed, rather than under review.
They found 34 boards had recommended a total of 121 schools close by June of 2020, affecting 33,000 students and with a ‘disproportionate impact’ on rural communities, she said. In almost all cases during previous years, such recommendations have been followed.
As of April 30, 58 schools had reached the final stage of being approved for closure by trustees. Votes were pending for another 52.
Twenty-five new schools had been proposed, primarily to consolidate students following two or more closures.
“We’re not saying no school should ever close, we’re saying that’s a lot of schools,” said Kidder. “It’s a very big impact on a huge swath of Ontario that we have to take very seriously. There are fundamentally deep flaws in the process that are not working for rural Ontario.”
A spokesperson for Hunter said based on a preliminary review, the numbers in the report seem consistent with what the Ministry of Education has been monitoring.
Planned closures include 12 schools in the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board and 19 from the Upper Canada District School Board. Both boards are in eastern Ontario.
While rural schools are often vulnerable because they are smaller, closing them can be particularly difficult for kids, resulting in significantly longer school bus rides and the loss of a central feature of their communities.
“We understand the vital role that schools play in any community, particularly our rural communities,” Hunter said in a statement Thursday.
“Potential school closures are among the most difficult decisions that school boards and communities have to consider.”
Last month, the province announced consultations to develop a new rural education strategy. The first meeting was scheduled to be held Friday in the eastern Ontario town of Merrickville.
But Kidder, who said a new strategy and review of rural funding are long overdue, noted boards are already in the final stages of their decisions.
The People for Education report blames closures on declining enrolment, changes to the provincial funding formula that makes it harder to keep schools with extra spaces operating, and review guidelines that changed the minimum standards and consultation required to close a school.
Parents and students at Robert Bateman High School in Burlington are among those devastated by an unexpected recommendation last month to close their school, which they say is the result of a “flawed closure process” and will have a profound impact on special needs students.
The school has many students with physical and developmental disabilities, is fully accessible and offers a full range of vocational programs.
“The process has been completely disorganized, chaotic and unaccountable,” says Denise Davy, who has one daughter in Grade 12 at Bateman and another who had been looking forward to starting Grade 9 there in the fall.
“Parents feel very disrespected and many parents of children with special needs are very afraid for their future schooling.”
Delegations are planning to appear before trustees Monday to oppose the decision.
Hunter said the ministry continues to urge school boards and communities to collaborate and find creative solutions such as sharing excess space with other boards or community groups.
The province has built or renovated 80 rural schools in the past five years, she noted. Last year, 19 schools in the province were shuttered.
Progressive Conservative MPP Bill Walker voiced concern about the pending closure of schools in rural Ontario.
“These numbers are very ominous and show how out of control the situation is. I hope the Liberal government has more wherewithal than to wait until the next election to stop the hallowing out of rural Ontario,” said Walker, who is MPP for Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound. “It’s clear they need to step up today and take control of the situation by putting a moratorium on school closures and fixing the funding formula. This is about children and their lives, and that has to be the priority.”
With files from Kristin Rushowy
Correction-May 5, 2017:This article was updated from a previous version that incorrectly stated the span of days parents have to fight the school closure.