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A boy walks past Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute in Toronto on Thursday, January 29, 2015.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

School boards across Ontario are spending $1-billion a year – 5 per cent of their provincial operating budgets – on buildings with an excess of empty space, money that should be used for student programs, Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals says.

Several boards in Ontario are grappling with declining enrolment, with about 600 schools less than half full, according to the Education Ministry. Ms. Sandals has given the Toronto District School Board – which is Canada's largest board, and where the problem is most acute – until Feb. 13 to say how it plans to reduce its under-used space – defined as schools where students occupy 65 per cent or less of capacity. One in five schools fall within the threshold, says a report the Toronto board released on Wednesday evening. (See map showing schools the TDSB is targeting for possible closure.)

At a 4 1/2-hour meeting on Wednesday evening, many trustees wondered how they could meet the deadline. But they ruled out asking for more time out of fear the minister would put the board under supervision. "That could be the hidden agenda," trustee Pamela Gough said.

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Ms. Sandals announced on Thursday that Ontario's publicly funded boards spend more than $1-billion of their $22.5-billion in operating grants on underused schools. The Toronto board receives $11,546 for each student, bringing its annual grant to about $3-billion.

"Rather than spending a billion dollars on supporting empty space …," Ms. Sandals told reporters, "what we really want to do is spend money on good programs for kids who actually exist."

The 65-per-cent threshold does not tell the whole story. The TDSB report compares the number of students each school can accommodate to its enrolment numbers. It does not include space in a school used for such things as leasing rooms to community groups, and adult education and English as a second language programs.

Even after factoring in other uses, the blunt reality is some schools will have to close, education experts say. While this is not a new problem for the board, Ms. Sandals cranked up the heat after education consultant Margaret Wilson released a report this month that highlighted problems at the school board.

The Toronto board closed 30 schools between 1998-2013, and sold 19 of those buildings. A spokeswoman for Ms. Sandals said the minister has also asked other boards to examine their numbers. The mayor of London, the director of the Hamilton board and community activists in Kingston have written to the province in the past year expressing concerns about possible school closings.

The biggest stumbling block to selling schools, education experts say, the wrath of parents. They say the Toronto board has been particularly slow to categorize schools as surplus and sell them.

"They can't withstand the political pressure," said Paul Christie, a former government-appointed supervisor of the Toronto board.

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Trustees of the Toronto board counter that they have sound reasons for treading cautiously. Ms. Gough said that although the board has staff to conduct long-term planning, some factors are unpredictable. She cited a school in Parkdale that, until recently, was full, mostly owing to an influx of Roma students. But when Ottawa tightened its laws for refugees, enrolment suddenly dropped.

"Nobody would've predicted two years ago that community would be that mobile," she said.

Trustee Chris Glover said that, in some cases, the board's planners identified major demographic shifts years ago, but were unable to act on them. For instance, he said, the board could not get the money to build a new school near about 100 new condo towers at Yonge Street, near Sheppard and Finch.

"We're busing kids out of there because the schools there are at capacity," Mr. Glover said. "We knew it, and for 10 years, we've been trying to get funding for it."

Trustees are already getting a hint of what is in store for them if they put schools up for sale.

Emma Brejak, school council co-chair of Blake Street Junior School Public School, where enrolment has been low for years, said "it would suck" if the facility closed.

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"We as parents put a lot of work into this school," she said. "It would just be a feeling of defeat if all that work seemed to go for nothing."

Laura Borczon, whose child attends kindergarten at Charles G. Fraser Junior Public School, with enrolment at 51 per cent of capacity, said she would not be happy if the school closed.

"We chose this school," Ms. Borczon said, explaining her family moved to the area after hearing good things about Charles G. Fraser.

Trustees took steps to spread the blame. On Wednesday evening, they adopted a motion to include on the list of under-used schools the name of the Ontario MPP that represents each one.

Gail Nyberg, a former chair of the Toronto board, said the board sold 10 schools in 2000 alone when she was at the helm, but only two in 2013.

"It's time to get a backbone and do what you need to do," she said. "This board has brought this on themselves."

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With a report from Sahar Fatima

Schools at 65 per cent or less capacity

The green dots represent schools the TDSB is targeting for possible closing. Red dots represent schools above 65 per cent capacity.

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