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Parents wait for their kids at Briar Hill Public School on November 08 2010. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Parents wait for their kids at Briar Hill Public School on November 08 2010. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Toronto school closings may get even more fractious Add to ...

The recent school closing reviews at the Toronto District School Board were more than a little contentious. They saw protests, angry parent rallies, board meetings that dragged past midnight, and one committee meeting derailed by angry community members who accused the TDSB of institutional racism.

That was nothing.

The TDSB has seen some of the most vocal supporters of fiscal prudence and the need for closings replaced in the recent election by staunchly anti-closing candidates. With two closing reviews still hanging in the balance, and another set promised for next year, there are tumultuous times ahead for a board that's struggled to adjust to the reality of slowing birth rates.

"I think it's going to be a very different board," said Josh Matlow, the outspoken trustee for Ward 11 (St. Paul's) who defended the fiscal necessity of closings, and is moving on to City Hall. "I think the board has definitely turned towards the left [politically]and it will be far more difficult to get some of the ARCs through."

ARCs are accommodation review committees: panels of parents, community members and educators charged with identifying schools that are underused and can be closed or consolidated. Last year, newly appointed director of education Chris Spence announced that he wanted every school in the board to be reviewed by an ARC and an initial round of eight, involving nearly 40 schools, was launched.

The reaction among trustees was mixed, but the consensus was that this was a sad but necessary step that would enable them to balance a very thinly stretched budget. They launched and completed eight ARCs in 2009/2010 and approved the closing of nine schools, generating almost $50-million in savings on operational and maintenance costs.

That cost-saving consensus may be lost. The new board appears split between pro- and anti-closing candidates, many of whom were backed by the teachers unions, said Scott Harrison, the trustee for Ward 19 (Scarborough Centre) who lost a bid for re-election to David Smith, a candidate who opposed closing schools.

And the proposed closings the new board will consider in coming months will likely face staunch opposition.

"I think this will be very problematic for the board because with fewer and fewer students every year, you can't maintain your stock hold of properties, i.e. schools, like you have in the past," he said.

The first vote could come in early 2011, as TDSB staff are currently considering an ARC recommendation on a cluster of schools in the Jane and Finch area. (At this point the recommendation is not particularly contentious, it states that all five schools should stay open.)

Another ARC report regarding a cluster of schools near Eglinton and Dufferin, is also being reviewed by staff. The report recommended closing Briar Hill Public School, but included a minority report that suggested that the school should remain open, so staff may take a little longer in their analysis.

Chris Glover, the new trustee in Ward 2 (Etobicoke Centre) who will replace the widely respected former board chair and fiscal conservative John Campbell, is a parent advocate who had campaigned against school closings. He said it is too early for him to say how he will vote on any of the outstanding ARC recommendations, but that the problem of declining enrolment has been overstated and that student numbers were on the rise until 2002.

"The other information that's given out about that decline is that it's 4,000 students a year, which is accurate, but there's 550 schools, so it's only eight students per school per year," he said. "It's not a catastrophic decline in enrolment, it's more of a normal cycle."

Mr. Glover wants the board to revise its optimal school sizes, do a better job of communicating with parents and community members and put more pressure on the province to review its education funding formulas before he'll consider closing more schools.

At the surface, issues like school closings can appear black and white, but they fade into shades of grey when you're faced with difficult choices and a budget that demands compromise, said Howard Goodman, the trustee who was re-elected to represent Ward 8 (Eglinton-Lawrence).

There are 22 trustees, seven of whom are new or newish (Mr. Matlow's replacement has served on the board before). It's too early to paint the new board as pro- or anti-closing, Mr. Goodman said, because with time, new trustees often adopt more nuanced positions than the ones they tout in their campaigns.

"Convincing seven new people that we need to go through more ARCs will take some time," he said.

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