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Opinion Blame politics, not parents, for Toronto’s shrinking schools

Paul Christie is a former provincial supervisor of the Toronto District School Board

The current problems of the Toronto District School Board are not new, particularly as they relate to declining enrollment and redundant real estate. In fact, many of them are decades old and are well documented, most recently by Margaret Wilson, the provincial investigator. By comparison, the salary of the director of education is very small potatoes indeed.

I had the opportunity to act as supervisor of the TDSB for the 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 school years. Interestingly, Premier Kathleen Wynne was one of the trustees that were under supervision. Many of the issues that were identified at that time (and long before) have re-emerged in the work of Ms. Wilson, especially the need for school closures and real estate rationalization.

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In my 1971 graduating year from Monarch Park Collegiate, the student population of the now amalgamated board was in excess of 400,000. Today, that population hovers around 250,000. Sadly, despite many staff recommendations, little has been accomplished in 'cutting the cloth to fit the suit'. If any commercial endeavour was obliged to operate 100 per cent of its physical plant in a 60 per cent revenue environment for such a long time, it would long since have gone bankrupt. And yet, principally for political reasons, the situation is perpetuated.

Parents tend to believe that the school across the street is the best school, in many cases, despite results. Concurrently, there is a segment of the electorate that is nostalgic about bricks and mortar and refuses to accept the demise of their alma mater. Bruce Public School and Carleton Village Public Schools (among many others) have been candidates for decades. Cottingham Public School, also tiny, survives because it is (or was) mainly populated by out-of-district 'optional attendees'. Some time ago, the Ministry of Education assisted in saving small schools by re-rating capacity. Rated capacity is now much smaller than many former students would realize. When built, Monarch Park was occupied by more than 2,000 students. It is now considered full at 1,350, and while I was supervisor had only 900 kids.

Tiny schools survive because each time they are recommended for closure the politicians at the board cannot withstand the withering political pressure. The strength of the 'activist' community leaves trustees – a dithering bunch at the best of times – in an untenable, perhaps unelectable, position. I expect that members of the legislature would rather be poked in the eye with a sharp stick than participate in school closures.

Until recently, TDSB staff did a poor job of demonstrating that a reconfigured and renovated consolidated school could do a better job of educating a child than tiny under-enrolled and understaffed facilities. In fact, there is an ideal size for a school. Something in the order of 450 kids would result in staffing that cannot be attained in a small environment. At that size, a vice-principal appears, a guidance counselor, an itinerant music teacher, et cetera, – providing the variety of programming we would all hope is available to our students. The consequence of all of this is a superior education.

In other cases, the public is justifiably jealous of the green space and recreational opportunities afforded by school properties. In my Upper Beaches neighbourhood, the only recreational space is the schoolyards. Most of these schools have joint-use agreements with the City of Toronto for green space use and after hours programming of gyms and rec spaces. In fact, the City should own many of these spaces but obviously is financially ill-equipped to buy them. But if the broader community-use is funded by the per-capita grant that a child brings to the school for the purposes of his or her education are we not doing that child a disservice by diverting money to municipal needs?

While all of this occurs, burgeoning growth areas, especially in North Scarborough and North Etobicoke, do not get the facilities they need because the province will not give capital funding to the board because of its redundant space, mostly in the inner city, and arguably in more affluent areas.

I think it's a given that the political governance structure of the TDSB will do everything in its power to resist Ms. Wilson's recommendations. And while Education Minister Liz Sandals recent 'get tough' attitude is refreshing, I anticipate that her colleagues in the government caucus will wince in the glare of hostile electors. It will be intriguing to see what former TDSB trustee Wynne does at that point.

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