Simply put, school closings mean war.
They pit parents, trustees, teachers, students, alumni and neighbours against one another in a battle involving the finagling of budgets, a tangle of bus routes, the anxiety of dislocation and the implacability of school pride.
At the Toronto District School Board, where enrolment has declined by nearly 13 per cent so far this decade, the fight has only just begun.
The board voted this week to review the fate of 35 schools, casting a cloud of uncertainty over the future of eight communities, hundreds of staff and thousands of families.
Batten down the hatches, Toronto: If the rest of the country is any indication, the next few years will be marked by divisive community meetings, door-to-door flier campaigns, fundraisers, protests, and tearful pleas for clemency.
"It got very emotional, and people did silly things because they were so attached," said Mike O'Hara, an Oakville parent who recently participated in school-closure decisions within the Halton District School Board. "They believed in their schools and that anyone who took that away from them was evil."
The writing has been on the chalkboard for a decade, spelled out in the dusty numbers of dwindling birth rates, but some ignored the lesson. In 2001, children 14 and under represented more than 19 per cent of Canada's population. By 2008, they represented only 16.8 per cent, and the number continues to shrink. In Ontario, where there are 106,000 fewer students since 2002, 57 of 72 school boards face declining enrolment.
The trend puts a financial squeeze on school boards, where funding is based largely on headcount and a single body is worth $10,500 on average in Ontario.
With its bottom line suffering, the TDSB is about to begin a process mandated by the Ministry of Education, in which an accommodation review committee, or ARC, studies a group of three to six schools.
The panel, which will consist of several representatives from each school, will make recommendations to the trustees whose vote will decide which schools get the axe.
Even though only trustees, not parents, get to vote, parents have ways to fight back. And the advantage to the TDSB's late awakening is that Toronto trustees, parents and community leaders stand to learn from the losses and the victories of others.
Parents in other boards have employed an arsenal that includes lobbyists, marching bands, appeals to historic committees, letter campaigns and door-knocking.
In Oakville last year, parents rose up when the board voted to close four schools.
The masses gathered in the summer of 2008 in a tidy red-bricked community church that was soon filled beyond its 600-odd person capacity.
And they were angry.
Rallying cries bounced off the church's vaulted ceilings with the energy of a rousing religious ceremony. The event wasn't meant to be a fundraiser, but when parent Mark Caskenette issued a "call to arms," his group, Oakville Residents for Public Education, raised over $50,000.
"I think that, at that point, the community felt not only outraged," Mr. Caskenette said, "but they were prepared to fight."
Using the fundraiser's proceeds, the group hired a lobbyist who pushed for a review of the Halton board's decision process, resulting in a rare success.
The lobbyist "really helped us in terms of strategy and understanding the various processes between the school board, the city or province," Mr. Caskenette said.
Money and lobbyists aren't everything; a little creativity can also save a lost cause.
Two years ago, parents sensed disaster when the Vancouver School Board began discussions to close Garibaldi Annex. Enrolment had plummeted to the point that the school, which teaches kindergarten through Grade 3, was filled with barely 40 tiny bodies in an aging building built to accommodate 165.
"The parents had been aware for a number of years that it was going to become an issue," said VSB trustee Sharon Gregson. "It was only when trustees were informed by staff that this was formally a problem that they rallied."
They asked the board for time to develop a plan and started brainstorming.
"They looked for ways to be creative to attract new students into the district," Ms. Gregson said.
They canvassed the community for fresh demographic data and looked for unique educational needs that weren't being met. Their findings led them to propose programs for students who were home-schooled but wanted to maintain a connection to the community - what's called a home-learner's program.
Halford Milne, whose son is in Grade 2 at Garibaldi Annex, helped garner the support of 12 community groups and organize rallies that attracted over 500 residents - even firefighters. On the day that the board voted, more than 70 community members stormed the meeting room with a marching band, and each parent brought a teddy bear to represent their child.
"It was funny because they had like 150 teddy bears strewn all over," he said. "We left them there because it was symbolic that we were leaving our children in their care. They were pretty much just dumbfounded."
That day the VSB voted unanimously to let the parents implement their plan, provided they met enrolment targets. Mr. Milne said that the school was already only 11 students away from their 2011 enrolment targets.
"We just threw it at them with the whole community-support thing," he said. "Basically, by the end of it, the board would have had a hard time saying no."
The Oakville and Garibaldi Annex groups pounded the pavement, informing families about the school-closure debate, recruiting volunteers and gathering data. Mr. Caskenette said his group's website, MyOakville.org, received 3,000 hits a month while the battle over Oakville schools was ongoing.
One of the first groups to get involved in the HDSB's closure process, the Clearview Oakville Community Alliance, helped steer the discussion. As the board was reviewing whether to close a handful of under-used schools in southeast Oakville, the alliance pushed for one large school to be built on a site the board already owned in Clearview.
A letter-writing campaign earned the group several spots on the board's 41-member ARC, and helped convince the board to approve building a mega-school in Clearview.The board's vote was held during the summer when parental attentions were turned to summer camps and holidays.
Mr. O'Hara said that the Clearview group did a good job of "getting the facts out" to the community and to the board. "They were very successful at getting the ears of the trustees," said Mr. Caskenette, whose group later successfully petitioned the ministry to review the decision.
Many within the community, including Mr. Caskenette, began to feel that the board was trying to slip the decision past them, and this helped fuel frustrations at that first meeting at the church.
Making sure the ARC process is open and transparent is a priority for the TDSB, said chairman John Campbell. He encourages parents to become involved in the ARC process, to attend meetings and "listen with an open mind."
He said that if parents allow reality and reason to prevail over nostalgia and emotion, the process will be better for the students, who will have better schools, more staff, and better facilities.
"There are going to be some people that there is no convincing," he said. "Kids are very adaptable. It's more the parents than the children that will find trouble with change."