TDSB Public School Excess Capacity: Close Schools

Difficult as it may be, hard decisions often need to be made. The Toronto District School Board, Toronto, Canada, has seen an average of 4% falling enrollment for their students for a good decade or more. This is a well known problem, but has been highlighted recently because of funding shortfalls and possible scandal at the school board. The under utilization problem is very well known. There was even a Queen’s University study on the subject.Yet there is no political will to close schools, even in the face of an obvious decline in students and therefore, government funding. Elected school trustees seem to not be able to do their jobs.

Under Utilized Schools In my area of Toronto, Scarborough, schools that should be closed: It is the only fiscally prudent option available. While we have a somewhat transient immigration Chinese population, they are not enough to fill the gaps in our school’s enrollment. I see no other source of new kids for our local schools. In my area alone we need about 300 more elementary school kids in order to fill the void.

School Name capacity 2014 Enrollment % Utilized
Highland Heights PS 262 144 55
Pauline Johnston PS 450 288 64
John Buchan Senior Public School 464 218 47

Local School Closure Studies: A couple of years ago there was a school closure public consultation and school assessment done on three of our local elementary schools. One school was assessed at less than 60% utilized, while the other two schools were assessed at less than 75% utilized. Future forecasts of enrollment were very optimistic, to say the least. The outcome of the study was to not close any school, but to reassign the lowest enrollment school to “mixed use”. They added a girls-only school as an independent area of the school, and are planning an adult education area of the school. These remedial measures only pull students from other schools and do not solve the under utilization problem.

One in five TDSB schools have enrollment of less than 65% of their capacity. There is no one to blame but demographics: We are just not creating as many babies as in the baby boomer generation. There is also no significant rebound expected in the future. Immigration can fill only a small amount of this void, akin to plugging your finger into a leaking dam.

School Closures Hurt Property Values: Schools are central to a community and are vital to the well-being of an area. There is significant emotional and economic energy associated with schools. Property values do drop if there is no school in the local area. When shopping for homes, people do look for a local school, even if they have no kids enrolled. Schools are also used as playgrounds and green space, so even if they are not used by the home owner, there is still significant local benefit.

Walk to School Benefits: Families like to walk their very young kids to school. Close the local school and the walk becomes unreasonably long and a car ride is required. We have some great physical fitness programs called “Walk your kid to school”, as well as the School Train program, where kids walk the neighbourhood to school, picking up fellow students on the way. These very popular social programs would be less viable if the local schools are closed.

Closing a school is difficult for elected school board members: Those school board members that logically support school closures will likely not get reelected, so there is an incentive to keep the status quo. This is one of the disadvantages to our democratic system. Who wants to run for an election where your opponent exclaims that on your watch you closed schools in your area? Closing schools is a death knell for elected school board members.

School board funding is calculated by the number of students enrolled. As the number of students fall, there is a significant cash crunch that occurs because while school board revenue falls, expenses required to keep under utilized schools open continues. Further, most of the TDSB schools were built in the 1960s during the heyday of the Bay Boomer generation. Now over 50 years old, due to neglected maintenance these schools can be in a very bad state of disrepair, with boilers and other expensive capital investments requiring replacement.

Those Against School Closures: Parents, home owners and elected school board trustees have a vested interest in not closing schools. These groups are large, vocal and very powerful. How to counter these groups is a significant issue.

Those For School Closures: These would be the Ontario taxpayer, which includes parents and home owners province-wide, as well as the elected Ontario government. The TDSB should also be in this group because they are legally obligated to balance their accounting books each and every year, but they have a vested interest in not following this law.

The need to Close Schools is Obvious: Tax payers all over Ontario have paid for the TDSB infrastructure expansion in the 1960s. Ontario tax payers should not be obligated to financially support the TDSB in their impossible effort to keep all their schools open. As expenses rise and funding falls the TDSB is in a difficult financial situation. In short, under utilized schools need to be closed. This is the only viable and long-term solution to their very obvious problem.

Selling School Property is only Possible One Solution: I am not saying that surplus schools need to be sold off. Ideally school property should be used for non-school purposes, which can be reversed if and when enrollment should rise, which may be wishful thinking.

Here are some possible uses for surplus TDSB school property that do not require the sale of the property:

  • Convert a school into commercial and recreational use. All schools have a gym, which is highly sought after by child and adult special interest groups. Currently the schools are not set up to allow only the gym to be accessible. Schools would need to be reconfigured, which would require construction and some investment.
  • Allow schools to be used to house the homeless: The homeless need a place to pay their head and schools are available. Schools in other countries have been used as community centres, earthquake proof buildings, etc, so this should not be a large stretch of the imagination.
  • Allow schools to be used to house smaller but local long-term care facilities. Not all seniors need specialized care. Local schools are ideally suited because they are in residential neighbourhoods and possibly close to their families.

The options are many and only limited by your imagination. The problem is certainly well defined and will not solve itself. Parents and home owners near an under utilized school should understand that all Ontario tax payers should not be expected to pay for the upkeep of these aging buildings and should welcome the transformation of these schools to something better utilized in their community.

01/29/2015: Blame politics, not parents, for Toronto’s shrinking schools: a great article from Paul Christie, former provincial supervisor of the Toronto District School Board, who, in his time, supervised the current Ontario Premier. How much more sage can you get?

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