Proposed provincial rules would give public less input on school closures

WATCH ABOVE: Ontario working on changes to reduce public’s role in school closures. Christina Stevens reports. 

TORONTO – As the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) prepares to close dozens of schools across the city, the provincial government is trying to reduce the amount of time provided for public consultation into the process.

The Ontario government outlined its plan in a Nov.2014 presentation entitled Pupil Accommodation Review Guideline Consultations.

The proposed changes suggested shortening the public consultation period from seven months with four meetings to five months with just two. The changes would also decrease the days from 60 to 30 between the board’s final report on which schools to close and the trustees’ final vote.

But in some cases the board can take a shortcut allowing them to hold only one meeting.

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The Ontario government however refused to comment on when the shortcut could be used but did release a statement to Global News saying the changes make the process more “flexible.”

“We are reviewing the guidelines to create more flexible and timely accommodation review process, while ensuring communities have the opportunity to provide meaningful input. One of our goals with reviewing this guideline is to establish a more formal role for municipal input as we believe decisions on land-use planning are best made when municipalities, school boards, and the local community work together.”

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The changes are expected to be implemented this year.

Annie Kidder, the executive director of People for Education, is critical of many changes but said they were made to make the whole process a bit more “realistic.” She said parents oftentimes felt they weren’t being listened to and school board officials felt the decision was made ahead of time.

“It turns out, the boards hands were tied often, so you’d go through this huge long process, put tons of work into it and it wouldn’t make any difference,” Kidder said.

“From a board’s perspective; they too often felt as if they already knew what they had to do. And so then, now we’re going through a kind of fake-ish process.”

The changes do give school board’s more of a say in which schools are closed. In fact, the proposal requires board’s initial report to contain options for the school with supporting arguments.

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But according to Doug Reycraft, the co-chair of the Community Schools Alliance, that’s the opposite of what should be done.

“They are trying to make it very easy for school boards to close schools with barely talking to the public, in some cases, not talking to the public at all,” he said.

The TDSB is currently in the process of figuring out if they should close nearly 70 schools around the city. The board has been under pressure – from councillors and parents alike – to consider community uses of the schools.

But Reycraft said the proposed changes would remove that requirement from the process, allowing a school’s value to be judged solely from an educational perspective.

“These proposed guidelines suggest that the value of a school to the local community and to the local economy no longer be factors in an accommodation review committee’s deliberation,” Reycraft said.

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“We are really concerned about removing that consideration from the process. Again, that’s taking us in the exactly the opposite direction that we would like to go.”

Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government released its mandate letters – the document with goals for each ministry – to the public this year. One of the items in the letter to the Ministry of Education was the idea of using excess space in schools to create community hubs.

“We liked it when we saw the mandate letters, we didn’t like it when we saw the proposed accommodation review guidelines.”

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