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Ontario school boards are coming under renewed pressure to address the financial drain, with Education Minister Liz Sandals saying the money should be used instead for student programs.Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario government is speeding up the process for closing schools, as part of a crackdown on publicly funded boards with too many classrooms sitting empty.

Several boards are grappling with declining enrolment across Ontario, where about 600 schools, or one in eight, are less than half full, according to the Education Ministry. School boards spend $1-billion a year, 5 per cent of their provincial operating budgets, on buildings with an excess of empty space. They are coming under renewed pressure to address the financial drain, with Education Minister Liz Sandals saying the money should be used instead for student programs.

Her ministry defines schools less than two-thirds full as "underutilized" – candidates for either closing or changes to their boundaries or programs they offer. The ministry unveiled new guidelines 10 days ago for community consultations that must take place before a school can be closed. But critics say the guidelines limit public engagement and make it easier to close schools.

A committee reviewing the fate of a school is required to hold two public meetings instead of four under the new regime, and the time frame for conducting a review is cut to five months from seven. Another major change causing considerable angst for municipal officials is a shift in emphasis toward student achievement and away from considering the impact of closing a school on the well-being of a community and the local economy.

Doug Reycraft, chair of the Community Schools Alliance, a not-for-profit that strives to work with the ministry, municipalities and boards, said holding only two open meetings over a shorter time period leads one to conclude that public input is not important.

"These changes are really just a recipe for an avalanche of closures across the province," Mr. Reycraft said. "To take the existing process and make it tighter is just an affront to democracy."

Monika Turner, director of policy at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, said focusing the review process more narrowly on the interests of students might help school boards solve their fiscal challenges. But it comes, she said, at the expense of the longer-term interests of a community, including the impact closing a school could have on residential real estate values.

"A school is the hub of a community," Ms. Turner said. "When you close a school, that community has lost a draw for anybody to ever come back."

The new process gives municipal governments a formal role for the first time, providing an opportunity for school boards to collaborate with municipalities in making the best use of school space.

"Ultimately, we actually want the school boards and the municipalities to have an ongoing relationship where [they] are sharing their planning data so that the municipalities are aware of where there are clusters of underutilized schools," Ms. Sandals said in a recent interview.

Earlier this year, she forced the Toronto District School Board to come up with a plan to reduce its underutilized space, which does not include classrooms used for adult education, English as a second language or community programs. One in five schools at the board fall within the threshold. Trustees agreed in February to conduct community reviews on a total of 68 schools over the next three years.

Under the new guidelines, the review committee acts as a conduit for sharing information between school-board trustees and the community. However, the power to close a school rests solely with the board of trustees. Committee members do not get to vote on whether to close a school.

Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, said in many heavily contested cases in the past, it was often a municipality that was fighting to prevent a school from closing.

"Everybody wants the school to remain open," he said, "but nobody wants to pay for it."

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