Only 10 minutes into a Toronto District School Board neighbourhood meeting this week, a hand shot up from one of the more than two dozen people sitting in the library at Essex Public School. "Are we going to be talking about schools closing and declining attendance and what that is going to do to our schools?" asked a parent in the audience.
There is little else on the minds of parents these days, ever since the province announced in January that as part of its response to Margaret Wilson's report into governance issues at the TDSB, the board must present a three-year plan to reduce its underutilized space. One in five schools at the TDSB, 130 in total, fall within the threshold.
Ausma Malik, the area trustee at the Essex meeting, in Toronto's Christie Pits neighbourhood, sounded a reassuring note. Schools on the hit list – her ward has several – will not necessarily close. Expanding or changing school boundaries and starting up high-demand programs such as French immersion could be ways to keep them open.
"Those are the kind of conversations we need to be having before we are rushed to close schools," she says.
The problem for the TDSB is that conversations, while democratic, take time. And time is exactly what the province does not have. Facing a provincial deficit of $12.5-billion, Premier Kathleen Wynne and Education Minister Liz Sandals are looking to shave up to $500-million, or 2 per cent, from the budget for elementary and secondary high schools by 2017-18.
Trustees – half of whom, like Ms. Malik, are newly elected – are under enormous pressure from Ms. Sandals to address surplus schools. At a meeting this week, they approved a capital plan made by the old board last June, which included recommending the sale of four non-operating school sites and identified another 16 as possible candidates for sale.
Yet past history involving battles around school redevelopments and rapidly mobilizing parents and residents suggest the chances of sales moving forward quickly are slim. The province may force the board to pick up speed. It is proposing changes to the community consultation process around school closures that many municipal officials fear would limit public engagement and make it easier to shutter schools. The changes would cut the number of public meetings required to two from four and shift the emphasis away from considering a school's value to the local community and onto the success of students.
The province argues that the changes will encourage parents to think about school closings as opportunities rather than losses, and give municipalities early notice that land is coming up for sale.
"It is not the responsibility of the parents to be making planning decisions. That is a conversation that the boards and the municipalities need to have," Ms. Sandals said in an interview this week.
Parents, however, are reluctant to stick to that role. At Thursday's meeting, many talked about the importance of maintaining school properties for their green space and expanding the community services housed in the buildings. They have support from Mayor John Tory and Toronto City Council, which just last week passed a motion asking the province to review its formula for deciding when a school is underutilized and to consider the buildings' use as community hubs.
Doing nothing is not an option. The board is facing a $3-billion backlog of repairs to many of its aging buildings.
Still, a look at some of the first properties that may hit the real estate market shows the process will not be easy.
Old Orchard Junior Public School, College and Ossington
The board has been leasing out this building, on the same site as the at-capacity Ossington/Old Orchard Junior Public School, to the West End Parents' Daycare and a Montessori school. Within a week of finding out the building was considered surplus, parents had mobilized to defend the child-care centre many rely on.
"There is a bit of a disconnect when the provincial government is saying we need to preserve daycare spaces … I understand that every school can't stay open, but in this case it's a unique situation. It's uniquely tied to this other school that is at capacity," says Heidi Pyper, a parent on the school council.
And the parents have already put together a history of the green space on the property.
"This school and that property was transformed by the parents and the community in the eighties. They planted trees and created an actual apple orchard to honour the site that was previously an orchard," Ms. Pyper said.
Ms. Malik, the trustee responsible for the school, says she is talking to the board about how a site with a daycare on it ended up on the list. "We absolutely need to work toward a co-operative solution [on funding]," she said. But that conversation can't happen inside the "pressure cooker" of threatened school closings.
C.B. Parsons Junior High School, Dufferin and Lawrence
This building is currently leased to the private Fieldstone School, and the Toronto Lands Corp. (the school board subsidiary responsible for disposing of surplus properties) is proposing severing the site so that it retains the surrounding green space. Should development along Dufferin and Lawrence intensify, as the city plans, that land could house a new school for the children of future condo dwellers.
"I am really concerned that we are not increasing density without having a place to put the kids," said Jennifer Arp, the new trustee for Ward 8.
Concern over how the city will grow affects many of the potential sites on the long list of buildings that are currently below 65 per cent of full capacity. If development follows the city's official plan, schools located near "Avenues" such as Eglinton will see increasing demand. Some of the inner suburbs are also likely to see increases in the number of school-aged children as families repopulate aging neighbourhoods; and specialized programs, such as French immersion, can drive demand.
Hanging over the community consultations that will happen around the C.B. Parsons site is the fate of the former Bannockburn P.S., whose field was declared surplus in 2013 in a move that is currently before the Ontario Municipal Board.
Still, Ms. Arp believes in some cases, the sales should and will proceed. "Everyone sort of understands that we might have to let the properties go. We are in the business of public education and we should be making sure the buildings that house our students are in the best shape that they can be … and if that means that we really have to look at our budget and really consider letting some of the buildings go, we have to consider that."
Bridgeport Drive and Bridgend Street, Scarborough
There is at least one situation under which the board is likely to proceed with a sale without much opposition from the community: When the land is empty, now and forever.
Bought to serve the needs of a subdivision that turned out to have fewer school-aged children than anticipated, Bridgeport is partly a parking lot and partly where local kids play sports.
"They were anticipating years ago that they might need to put another school in there," says Jerry Chadwick, the trustee for Ward 22.
Mr. Chadwick anticipates some concerns to be raised about the loss of green space, but says a local daycare may be interested in looking at the space available.
Even so, the board will have to negotiate with the Catholic board, which co-owns the six-acre site, on how to sever its half ownership stake.
Mr. Chadwick is more concerned about advising parents on several other clusters of schools in his ward that have been identified as possible revenue generators. "I would much rather see [Bridgeport] sold than a piece of our active schools severed or something like that, because there are no children on it," Mr. Chadwick said. "It's up to the community to say 'We're good with that.'
"It's a very emotional issue any time you talk about selling a school in a community."