Toronto District School Board trustees have agreed to conduct community consultations over the next three years on a total of 68 school properties, including many that are less than two-thirds occupied.
The consultations will affect 20 properties, including schools that are closed and four properties trustees agreed last June to sell. The remaining 48 are operating. The consultations will determine whether these schools will be closed or have their boundaries or programs changed.
Trustees approved a motion to set up the consultations at a special meeting on Tuesday evening, just days before Friday's deadline to inform Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals how they plan to address underused schools.
TDSB chair Shaun Chen told reporters after the meeting he will invite parents, city councillors, other school boards and the Education Minister to participate in determining the fate of the schools.
"We need everybody at the table to ensure that we move forward responsibly," he said.
Toronto Mayor John Tory has made it clear he wants the city to have a say. At city hall on Tuesday, council voted unanimously to ask staff to provide a list by next month of non-educational city activities taking place at 29 TDSB properties that are in the hands of Toronto Lands Corp., the school board subsidiary responsible for disposing of surplus properties.
Trustees added four properties to the surplus list last June as part of a capital plan that was revealed last week. Trustees also identified another 16 schools that are closed as possible sale candidates.
The vote by trustees on Tuesday followed heated debate, with several arguing that community consultations – a necessary step before a school can be sold – should be deferred.
"We are not here to support the ministry staff," trustee Chris Glover said. "We are here to support the community."
Trustee Chris Tonks countered that a community consultation does not equate to a fire sale.
"This is a game of chicken, and the province is the butcher here," Mr. Tonks said. "If there's one thing I know about our processes, it takes forever to get anything done."
Trustees have been under enormous pressure to address the fact that one in five schools, or a total of 130, are less than two-thirds full.
Mr. Tory has asked for a review of the 130 schools and also urged the city, school board and province to work together, saying it is irresponsible for any one to make decisions without consulting the others.
"We act as different public-sector bodies – the school board, the provincial government, the other school boards, the city government – as if we don't have a shared responsibility, as if all of these considerations don't have to be taken together in a community minded, consolidated fashion," he said.
Councillor Mike Layton, who brought together about a dozen councillors and trustees for a lunchtime press conference, asked the province to "press the pause button."
Council passed a motion from Mr. Layton asking the province to change its formula for school use to include community activities. "We are not saying let's not sell them, we're saying before you start talking about sales, start talking about the other things that go on in schools," he said.
The four properties trustees agreed last June to sell are Old Orchard Junior Public School, C.B. Parsons Junior High School and two pieces of vacant land, one of which once housed the Bridgeport school.
Properties identified for possible sale include Brookbanks Public School, Burnett Public School, Cartwright Public School, Earls-court Junior Public School, McCowan Road Junior Public School, McNicoll Public School, and Silver Creek, a building with a children's centre that the school board subsidizes.
At Tuesday's board meeting, education director Donna Quan paid tribute to two of her deputies who are stepping down. As first reported by GlobeandMail.com, two of the board's three associate education directors are set to leave. Lou Vavougios, associate director in charge of human resources, is retiring at the end of February. Gen Ling Chang, the associate director responsible for academic programs, is leaving as of March 11.
Ms. Quan said Mr. Vavougios has been "a steady hand and an anchor." She said Ms. Chang has contributed to the school board with "unconditional passion."
The departures come at a difficult time for Canada's largest school board.
Trustees and staff have been working around the clock over the past few weeks to address demands made by the minister. Last week, trustees agreed to give up their private offices at the school board's headquarters, lay off their constituency assistants and cut their expense accounts by more than half to $11,780 each.
Ms. Sandals issued the edicts last month after the release of a report by education consultant Margaret Wilson that highlighted problems at the school board, including lax governance that allowed a former chair to pursue "pet projects," trustees routinely interfering in day-to-day operations, micromanaging by the board's top-ranking staffer, Ms. Quan, and fears among many employees that their e-mails and telephone calls are monitored.
Ms. Wilson's report also says the school board fails to manage its capital assets. Instead of selling schools with low enrolment to finance repairs and renovations at others, the report says, the board keeps operating them at huge expense.
With reports from Elizabeth Church and Ann Hui