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Greg Fentie waits at the local bus stop with his kids and a neighbour at their home near Springfield, Ontario on Oct. 11, 2018.

GEOFF ROBINS

A provincially imposed moratorium on school closings – now in its second year – is costing several Ontario districts millions of dollars to keep half-empty schools open and operating with fewer programs for students, board officials say.

The former Liberal government suspended school closings last June with a promise to review the guidelines on shutting them after complaints from parents, especially those in rural and northern communities where boards are grappling with declining enrollment. Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government has upheld the moratorium, but it is unclear for how long it will do so.

“We are taking the necessary time to review this process and determine next steps,” Education Minister Lisa Thompson said in an e-mail response.

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A recent report by advocacy group People for Education found that staff at 34 of the province’s 72 school districts had recommended closing 121 schools – affecting about 33,000 students – by June, 2020, and that most of those schools were in rural communities.

Discussions around school closings are controversial. Smaller communities in particular tend to be hardest hit, in many cases losing the only school in town, forcing kids onto buses for long journeys. Keeping undercapacity schools open has a costly effect on students' education, too, officials say. The province gives money to school boards largely based on enrollment, and a small-town school with fewer pupils gets less cash, meaning less money to maintain and repair buildings and fewer course offerings for high-school students.

“We don’t have enough kids to run programs and sports and arts. Is that the type of education we want for kids in the province of Ontario?” asked David Thompson, chair of the Near North District School Board in North Bay.

His board had to put on hold the consolidation of three high schools into two (there are about 1,600 students between the three schools). Mr. Thompson said he understands the financial pressures faced by government, but “at the end of the day, the government has got to make a decision because you can’t keep half-empty schools open,” he said.

The former Liberal government modified the closing process to allow municipalities to weigh in, and for economic-impact assessments. But critics say funding is at the heart of the issue, and how schools are funded – especially those in smaller communities – should be re-examined.

Greg Fentie, a father of two, lost a fight to save a school from closing in the village of Springfield, near London. His children attend the elementary school and he did, too. The local board voted to close Springfield Public School in the month before the moratorium came into effect. His children will be bused twice as far – about 30 minutes each way – when a new, bigger school is built in another community.

Mr. Fentie was also concerned about what the loss of the school will mean for the community. He doesn’t anticipate many young families moving in.

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"This school is what’s good for the kids and what’s good for the community. It’s the pride of our community,” Mr. Fentie said. “When it closes, it will be a hard loss.”

Matt Reid, chair of the Thames Valley District School Board in southwestern Ontario, which made the decision to close Springfield along with other schools, acknowledged the effect on communities. But he said the province requires boards to address empty student spaces in order to get money to build new schools in growth areas. Springfield, he said, needed a lot of costly repairs, and a new school will be built in a nearby community that will also accommodate several other communities.

“The ministry really holds our feet to the fire and they will pick what schools to fund. We don’t have enough money in our budgets to be funding things ourselves," he said.

The Thames Valley board was about to turn its attention to its empty secondary-school student spaces when the government issued a moratorium. Mr. Reid said the move was necessary to offer high-school students a variety of course selections. Staff had recommended closing seven of the 28 high schools, which would have lowered the board’s operating expenses by $7-million.

Instead, the board is spending $1-million a year to provide extra teaching staff to those schools so that students have more course options even though the class sizes are smaller.

“The government has downloaded the responsibility of school closings onto trustees because they don’t want to have these decisions made in Toronto,” Mr. Reid said. “But now that’s two years where we haven’t been able to move forward to actually really address some of the needs for these students.”

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A similar situation is playing out in Hamilton, where the public school board embarked in 2011 on reviewing the condition of all its properties. It had completed a review of all but three areas when the moratorium came into effect.

Todd White, chair of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, said those communities were awaiting a review that would not only mean closings, but also consolidations and potentially new schools. As it stands now, big repairs are being put off, until the board can properly review them when the moratorium is lifted.

Mr. White said he understands the politics and the controversy around school closings. But he added that many boards are grappling with the same problems.

“Our board is certainly frustrated. We want to continue with our plans,” he said.

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