School Closings for Dummies
The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is in the eye of the school closing storm right now, with heavy demands for school closings coming from the Liberal government of Ontario to sell off “underutilized” schools. The issue is, however a national and increasingly an international one. Certainly within Canada, the cries are heard from the Vancouver (VSB) to rural Nova Scotia. The VSB is under exactly the same pressure from a BC “Liberal” government.
Ontario has a provincial government that has, to some extent, mastered the art of appearing to be progressive while at the same time, implementing a series of reactionary austerity policies.
They were helped enormously by a provincial ‘Progressive’ Conservative Party that moved so far to the right in the 2014 election that they made the Ontario Liberals appear to be more progressive in relative terms, than they actually were. Some might add to the mix, an Ontario NDP that moved so close to the populist center that the also gave the Liberals breathing room with progressive voters who stampeded to the Liberals to prevent the ‘disaster of a Hudak Tory government’. Well, in politics, be careful what you wish for or vote for. The progressive litmus test for the government is its willingness to seek ‘revenue enhancements’ (tax increases) leveled on the corporations and wealthy individuals. Taxing the rich always polls very well but governments that STILL are financed by corporations hear those louder voices. In the Ipsos Poll below, 88% of Canadians want higher taxes on the rich. 89% if it was a millionaire’s tax. The greedy voices of the 1% clearly count for more than community schools for the 99%. Such is the calculus of the Ontario Liberals.
The Liberals still drew in some educators, notwithstanding totally anti-union controls on collective bargaining followed up by zero based education budgets. The threat of a Hudak government on the labour-education model of Scott Walker’s Wisconsin even allowed the Liberals to draw unheard of support from the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL).
A report commissioned for the Minister of Education, Liz Sandals by Margret Wilson, a former OSSTF union president and a former chair of the College of Teachers, demanded a speed up in Toronto selling off so-called surplus schools. Teachers have zero respect for Wilson as a former leader who sold out the federations to help the government open the College of Teachers. Her Quisling past is one thing, but why anyone thinks Wilson has had a creative thought regarding education in the past 40 years – well they should look for a seconder. An education expert – I think not.
At the risk of being labeled Captain Obvious, it must be said that closing a school literally tears the heart out of a community – the church, Mosque, shul, the community centre are simply not the same. Forcing people to travel long distances in either urban or rural communities forces them into a profoundly alienating experience.
It has become clear that the vast majority of the endangered schools are in poorer Toronto neighbourhoods. Some of this shortfall is due to a decline of immigrants due to changes in immigration policy. Some is the open boundary policy that allows middle class residents near poor schools to go the French Immersion, gifted, IB, the Alternative school route or just plain gaming the system to arrive at highly sought after schools that are almost always in prosperous areas. During my years on the board the right wing and administration would periodically demand that some schools close. The left would respond “OK let’s start with Rosedale PS” which was the smallest school but located in the very richest neighbourhood. Somehow we soon moved on to the next subject.
The bussing required in rural Canada constitutes a kind of educational ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. My years on the school board also allowed me to see how well planned our neighbourhood schools were by our educational foremothers and fathers. A Toronto Jr. school, usually K-6 was located in a way that these young kids never had to cross a busy street. Of 22 high schools in the former TBE, 18 were easy walking distance from the subway and the other four were well serviced with streetcars. Too many kids are already bussed within Toronto due to insensitive placement of special education, French Immersion and the duplication of our public/catholic systems.
Wilson attempted to make the case on CBC Radio, that there are ‘program issues’ in smaller schools. Small high schools cannot offer the breadth of program that large high schools can offer. To an extent, this is true but it takes a special kind of arrogance to make this decision for the community without discussion. Yes there are program trade-offs but surely this is a parent driven community decision not a bureaucratic centralizers decision. The trade off is not all one way. The literature on small schools shows clearly that there are huge advantages that I have always called the ‘Cheers’ effect - the bar where everybody knows your name. When it comes to schools, a strong case can be made that “small is beautiful”.
There is a secret word that everybody seems to have forgotten in the crucible of the present debate. That word isRENT. Demographic change is highly unpredictable in Toronto and other locations. During my tenure on the Toronto board, there was pressure to close small schools as well. One was Niagara St School which was half empty in an older industrial area. All of a sudden a mayor named Crombie rocked the city by passing a bylaw that restricted the height of new buildings to 45’ but exempted the waterfront. The waterfront almost instantly filled up with condos and coops to the point that Niagara St was bursting. This is not a one-off. It happens all the time.
The economics of the situation is such that 7 years rent is roughly equal to the sale price of the schools as a rule of thumb. Some pressure comes from the French and Separate school boards that they want to buy TDSB schools. Why sell when you can rent the schools? You get just as much revenue and you retain the asset against future need.
The government likes to ‘talk’ a good game about ‘too many silos’ and too much ‘silo bound thinking’ in government. This is a perfect chance to ‘walk the talk’. There is a fully worked out practical orientation usually called ‘The Community School Concept’ that sees underutilized schools as an actual opportunity to supply child care, library services, health services, municipal services, community centre services all under one roof without the expense of new buildings by moving into ‘empty’ school space. This orientation can retain small schools in one school towns.
The fact that all of a sudden Toronto Mayor John Tory wants to be consulted on school closings and progressive city councilors are popping up one after the other to speak on the dislocation of already existing child care, the potential loss of green space and so on shows that the issue cannot be contained within the education community alone. Small and medium sized communities all across Ontario are increasingly galvanized to oppose school closings. By way of example, at one time three towns in the Grey-Bruce Bluewater board each had a high school, Durham, Hanover and Walkerton. The decision was made to close the Durham High School and bus the kids to Hanover. This is the date that Durham died as a real community. Few located new businesses and as older ones closed as the windows filled up with plywood. The same fate awaits small towns across Ontario and across Canada.
There is a good chance that when the Ontario Liberals fully appreciate the political cost of school closings they will … um… reconsider their scorched earth austerity direction.
The Liberals in Toronto hold 20 of 22 seats at the present time. The NDP holds the other two seats and there are no schools in those two ridings on any list. Toronto holds the key to Liberal fortunes in Ontario. With a very strong NDP in the north and industrial south-west and a powerful PC Party in rural southern Ontario, it is “Fortress Toronto” that is the Alamo for the Liberals. Lose it and they are toast. A powerful case can be made that the school closing issue alone can cut deeply into Liberal popularity in Toronto. I think the Liberals were already taken aback at the strong parent support for the TDSB and their opposition to the Wilson Report.
We have done an overlay of the potential closings and the Liberal ridings in Toronto. Amazingly, 80% of the potential closings pile up in just six Liberal seats. Those seats are, York South-Weston, currently held by MPP Laura Albanese; Davenport held by new MPP Cristina Martins; Trinity Spadina held by newby Han Dong MPP; Scarborough Agincourt held by Soo Wong MPP; Scarborough Centre held by powerful Minister of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure, Brad Duguid; and Scarborough Guildwood held by Mitzi Hunter MPP and Minister without Portfolio and Associate Minister of Finance. The first three are highly vulnerable to the NDP who have held them all recently. Scarborough has a historic tendency to swing as a region for whoever is having a successful election. It could easily swing either PC or NDP in the next Ontario election.
Now imagine this campaign. First a four page 8 1/2X11 one fold leaflet that has a cover page that has a big picture of one of the six MPPs. The wording on the first panel says “This is Laura Albanese – she is our MPP for York South Weston but she wants to close most of our neighbourhood schools”
Panel two of the leaflet would list the schools in York South-Weston that are on the closure list. Panel three would make the case above about how school closures are an idiotic policy. Panel four would contain contact information for the MPP and a request for a lawn sign that says “DON’T LET MPP LAURA ALBANESE CLOSE OUR NEIGHBOURHOOD SCHOOLS.” The general public clearly expects their local MPP to oppose school closings, even if they have to fight their own party to do it.
The sun will not go down before the leaflet is being passed around at Liberal caucus-cabinet meetings and at Liberal HQ. They will know a similar fate is coming for Martins, Dong, Wong, Duguid, and Hunter and vulnerable Liberal MPPs across Ontario. Other Toronto Liberal MPPs are just lower on the priority list. Mike Colle, Eglinton Lawrence and Parliamentary Assistant to Minister of Transport might be the next on the list.
Quite frankly, if I were the chair of the TDSB I would tell the Liberal government of Ontario that the TDSB plans to close over 100 schools but will announce the list in the spring of 2018 and begin the closures in September of 2018 to correspond with the next provincial election. If you don’t like it, tell your local Liberal MPP.
Who wants school closures in Toronto and elsewhere? Austerity oriented Liberals, Tories, school privatizers and some players in the development industry.
Who does NOT want school closures? Parents, teachers, support staff, students, civic leaders including mayors and councilors and local communities, the NDP and the unions. Is this the alliance the Liberals hope to forge? They just can’t be that stupid.
The strategy is clearly to starve the TDSB of funding, demand closures and then blame the board for the choices they make. The board and its allies are just not that dense. Assigning personal and political responsibility exactly where it belongs on the Liberal MPPs by name works. BTW it is the only thing that works.
With any luck, the Liberals will soon realize that they cannot hope to win without this struggle resulting in a pyrrhic victory that costs them the next election. If they proceed, they need to realize that the anti-closing activist wing has moved way beyond the hapless local trustees. They are tired of talking to the monkey. They want to confront the organ grinder. Liberals will pay with buckets of their own political blood if they continue the assault on community schools.
I’m going to get the popcorn. I would not be betting on the Liberals in this one.