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'Groups weigh fate of underused Toronto schools."

If that recent headline rung a bell, it's no wonder. Officials have been trying for what seems like forever to close under-populated Toronto schools. Though around 100 of the city's 550 schools are half empty - a scandalous waste of space and resources - the Toronto District School Board has managed to close only one or two in recent years. Nobody wants to take on the legions of parents who invariably fight to save the dear old local school, no matter how shabby.

But now, at last, there is a real chance of progress on this hoariest of school-board issues - a rival of the endless school-pools debate for its Groundhog Day repetitiveness. The board has a dynamic new education director, Chris Spence, who successfully closed underused schools in his last post as director in Hamilton. The board's articulate chairman, John Campbell, is speaking out persuasively on the need to close some schools. So is one of its most vigorous trustees, Josh Matlow, who is leading an effort to roll out a series of committees to consult residents in reluctant neighbourhoods.

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"I'm very pleased to see there is the will now to take this seriously," says Mr. Matlow. "The majority of the board is ready to make some admittedly difficult and controversial decisions."

The case they make is hard to refute. Enrolment in Toronto schools is falling at around 4,000 students a year, the result of lower modern birth rates and the flight of families from the high cost of living in Toronto. Enrolment fell 13 per cent in elementary schools from 2001 to 2008 and 10 per cent in secondary schools.

Underused schools rob the education system in two ways. First, they drain it of money. It costs the same amount to heat and maintain a half-empty school as it does a full one. Closing just one Scarborough school is saving the board $750,000.

Second, it robs students of opportunity. While smaller schools can have a cozy feel, Mr. Campbell rejects the "romantic notion that a smaller school is a more welcoming school." Larger ones offer more sports programs, extracurricular activities, library resources and equipment while pulsating with school spirit. The board thinks that the ideal high school has around 1,200 students.

Closing underused middle schools would also help the board reach another goal.

To minimize disruptive transitions for students, it wants to move away from schools teaching only Grades 7 and 8 and toward more schools that go right from kindergarten to Grade 8.

Mr. Matlow says the board is like a family that owns two houses but can't really afford to keep both of them up. Better to sell one and "make the one you live in the best house you can imagine."

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In fact, selling some school properties to developers could yield many millions for the board at a time when, like every branch of government, it is struggling to make ends meet.

Even with such solid common sense on its side, the board faces a big fight on this issue. Nothing arouses parents and communities like the prospect of shuttering the local school. Many wrongly associate school closings with the bad old days of education cutbacks under Conservative premier Mike Harris. Those on the left of the political spectrum often oppose closings out of sheer reflex.

Dalton McGuinty's Liberal government slapped a two-year moratorium on closings after coming to office in 2003. Now provincial ministers are facing up to the demographic reality that schools face.

It is time parents did, too. They can hardly complain about too few lunchroom monitors and too much chipping paint in one breath and cry out for saving the half-empty local school in the next. Closing that school means more resources for teachers and students when they move to new quarters in a bigger school - more computers, more musical instruments, more support staff; more of everything parents always want.

Instead of fighting to save the underused local school, sensible parents should offer to swing the first sledgehammer.

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