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Rocket science for pre-schoolers

April 14th, 2015 · No Comments

The edict from Liz Sandals, the province’s education minister, to the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) that it must, among other things, decide on which underutilized schools should close might just break the institution into shell-shocked pieces.

Closing schools in any school board is a task requiring courageous confidence. Governing for the benefit of the whole, because it will ultimately pay dividends for the individual parts, takes chutzpah. To ask the TDSB to summon such leadership would be laughable if the potential consequences of them trying and failing were not so damaging.

Over one third of the TDSB inventory of schools is in “critical” need of repair or renovations, according to an Ontario-wide standard facility index. One in five schools has less than 65 per cent occupancy, or in the language of the sector, “utilization rate”. Taken together these facts necessitate a consolidation of capital resources, for in terms of its physical resources, the board has ailing parts, and not all parts are needed for the foreseeable future.

It all seems so logical. But deciding whether or not to close a school is as difficult as deciding which streets to make one way, where to put a clean injection site, or where to locate a new minimum security prison to house sex offenders. Opposition to closing schools can be ferocious.

Deciding which school buildings and land to sacrifice to benefit the whole system is not for the weak-willed. Parents who have taken on a $1 million mortgage in part because there was a school their children could safely walk to will have something to say about this. The mayor has weighed in on other public “interests” including community use, heritage values, and green space. Imagine, for example, closing Central Technical School and selling off the land. Central Tech’s utilization stands currently at 53 per cent, and it is not expected to rise above 50 per cent for the next 20 years. It’s a lot of land and, if sold, it could generate considerable resources for the school board. Imagine that outcome. The fight over whether or not to turf and dome the field would, by comparison, seem like a minor skirmish within the community of stakeholders.

With a dysfunctional board made up of self-interested trustees, it’s not a battle the TDSB is ready to fight.

A provincial audit of TDSB governance was revealing. Margaret Wilson, commissioned by Minister Sandals to assess the governance at the board, said it lacks the political will to “right size” the system. Trustees, she wrote, “horse-trade” for votes and support each other in saving schools in their respective wards. In other cases, trustees invite interference from city councillors or even MPPs.

There is a certain amount of clairvoyance required in the business of planning the future need for school buildings. Demography, immigration, transportation development (i.e., where the subways, LRTs, and smart tracks will go), and curricula all figure into the equation. If those are not enough variables to balance, consider the fact that the Toronto District Catholic School Board has the same issues to grapple with, and the two boards sometimes “trade” properties. On a technical level, landing a probe on a comet for a little walkabout might be easier. On a political level, this task requires the wisdom of Solomon and the TDSB board has neither wisdom nor maturity in spades. The province, of course, knows this and will likely take over and place the board under supervision, nullifying the power of the trustees and the director alike. It may be the time out needed to bring common sense to bear. Perhaps though we should not forget that it was another common sense revolution that got us into this pickle to begin with. Thanks again, Mr. Harris.

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