Torontonians are being invited to share their visions for education in an ambitious effort to rethink public schools – even as staff at the Toronto District School Board draw up budget-cutting plans to close small schools and house kindergarten classes in pre-fab "portables."
The disconnect is symptomatic of growing tension at the TDSB, a tug-of-war that pits the demands of parents against the demands of the budget.
Over the next six weeks, the board will hold one of the largest rounds of community consultation it has ever undertaken. Toronto parents will be asked about the kinds of programming they'd like to see in their schools – anything from better access to French immersion to high-tech classrooms is on the table – as part of an initiative the board calls its "K-to-12 strategy."
Before any of their ideas can bear fruit, however, the TDSB will have to dig itself out of a financial hole so deep it led the province to freeze funding for major construction.
School closings may be part of the answer, according to the board's top official, Director of Education Chris Spence.
"Yes, there are going to be consolidations," he said in an interview.
By starting the discussion with programming he is hopeful that parents will realize that some schools – most likely the smallest ones – will have to close, in order to ensure that students across the city can get the sort of education their parents want.
"The big question that isn't being asked in these consultations is how we're going to fund all of this," agreed Trustee Pamela Gough. But she says it would be a mistake to close the smallest schools.
"Unlike the director, I love small schools," she said. "When schools are too big, they become inhumane places. I think that's already happening in some schools where the teachers can't get to know all the students."
Trustee Elizabeth Moyer was more supportive of the need to consider the politically risky idea of closing schools.
"We've been needing to close schools for a long time," she said.
Programming across the board is piecemeal, and some students must travel across the city to find arts-focused programming or technology and design classes. Ms. Moyer said the K-to-12 strategy will help homogenize those programs and identify schools to be closed and sold off to fund them.
She found other cost-cutting measures board staff have suggested more worrisome, including using pre-fabricated portables as a cheaper and faster way to accommodate full-day kindergarten.
"They may be cheap to build but they require more maintenance, or if they only last 10 years, you might not end up making any savings," she said.
Dr. Spence said the pre-fabricated units the board was considering allowed for lots of natural light and were tailored to kindergarten.
"We want to make sure we're making a great learning environment for our students but fiscal restraints and bringing costs down is an imperative," he said.
Construction costs have been a problem for the board. It came under fire earlier this year for overspending on minor projects and then last week the Ontario government froze funding for major capital spending and slammed the board for running over budget on 25 per cent of its construction projects.
Dr. Spence has hired an external consultant to review one TDSB construction project that recently ran more than $11-million over budget. His hope is that this review, the community consultations – which will be completed in late November – and the pre-fabricated kindergarten units will get the board back on track and restore its relationship with the province before the end of the calendar year.