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Half-empty schools

April 14th, 2015 · No Comments

Master list of possible closures includes eight in Ward 10

By Brian Burchell and Claire Kilpatrick

At least eight schools in Trinity-Spadina are at risk of closing following the provincial Minister of Education’s direction to the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) to review its capital plan. It’s but one of several orders based on the recommendations found in Margaret Wilson’s sweeping report, which reviewed “operational issues at the TDSB with a focus on the governing structure”.

On the TDSB to-do list is to “provide a three-year capital plan that reflects the current student population”. Many schools are underutilized, and the board lacks the budget to operate and maintain its entire inventory of buildings. According to TDSB documents, 135 schools have a utilization rate of less than 65 per cent.

The Gleaner has identified eight schools facing possible closure in TDSB Ward 10, which roughly encompasses the area of Dupont Street south to the waterfront, and University Avenue west to Dovercourt Road.

Notably, Central Technical School is on the list, with a utilization rate of 58 per cent. The school has a capacity of 2,857 students, but only 1,657 are currently enrolled. The utilization rate is expected to dip further to 47 per cent by 2019, and not rise above 50 per cent by 2034. These projections are based on the board’s own data.

Low utilization rates only tell one part of the story, as the cost of keeping partially empty schools open affects the TDSB’s ability to maintain its buildings properly.

A June 2014 report by the TDSB, “Capital Facts: Building Strong and Vibrant School Communities,” places the capital renewal backlog at $3.5 billion. Funds are needed to repair or replace electrical systems, pavement, heating and boiler systems, roofs, and windows.

According to the report, the condition of the buildings is ranked on a provincial system known as the Facility Condition Index (FCI), where the ranks are as follows: FCI<10 Good; 10<FCI<30 Fair; 30<FCI<65 Poor; and FCI>65 Critical. In the TDSB, over 200 buildings are classified as FCI>65 or critical, which means they require extensive renovations and replacement of core systems. This represents over one third of the TDSB’s 588 schools.

The Wilson report was highly critical of the “Board in its management [of], or rather failure to manage, capital assets,” and quoted a special assistance team member: “There isn’t a normal process where priorities are established in an objective fashion with the Board acting as a unit.

“Trustees represent their wards and have their own perceptions about what should be done.” Trustees told Wilson that they “horse-trade” for votes and support each other to save schools in their individual wards. The report goes on to say that “trustees seek the support of city councillors and, in the case of at least one capital renewal project, involved the area’s MPP (to intervene).”

Because the board, as the Wilson report states, lacks the political will to right size its system, renewal funding must be spent on too many schools. And unaddressed problems, such as leaking roofs, manifest themselves into exponentially greater problems if they are not repaired in a timely fashion.

One problem that’s left out of this discussion is the intersection of alternative schools housed in underutilized schools and vice versa, and the Gleaner has identified at least four alternative schools in the TDSB that share buildings with public schools that have been slated for possible closure.

Two of them, Hawthorne II Bilingual Junior Alternative School (50 Essex St.) and Grove Community School (108 Gladstone Ave.), are in Trinity-Spadina.

In both cases, the alternative school has strong utilization rates, while its host school does not. Hawthorne II’s projected 2034 utilization rate is at 106 per cent, compared to a projected utilization rate of 45 per cent for Essex Junior and Senior Public School, with whom Hawthorne II shares a building.

The other citywide schools that may be affected are Africentric Alternative School (1430 Sheppard Ave. W.) and Equinox Holistic Alternative School (151 Hiawatha Rd.), both of which are projected to have high rates of enrolment well into the 2030s.

Of course, there is no guarantee that any of the schools that face possible closure will, in fact, close, but if they do, what will happen to the alternative schools that call those buildings home?

According to Ryan Bird, a spokesman for the TDSB, underutilized schools don’t necessarily face closure, but are merely set to undergo studies that may result in closure. Bird wouldn’t speculate on the fate of alternative schools if their host schools do end up closing.

Newly-elected TDSB trustee Ausma Malik did not respond to numerous requests from the Gleaner to provide comment.

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