On March 7 support a moratorium on closures & PARs
Open letter to Hon. Kathleen Wynne, Patrick Brown and Andrea Horwath
cc. Education Minister Hon. Mitzie Hunter, Hon. Eleanor McMahon (Burlington), Hon. Indira Naidoo-Harris (Halton), Hon. Kevin Flynn (Oakville)
We, the undersigned, are asking for all-party support on March 7 for an immediate province-wide moratorium on school closures and Program & Accommodation Reviews (PAR). We’ve seen first-hand the problems with the PAR process, as one is currently underway in Burlington with the initial recommendation to close two schools: Burlington Central High School in downtown, and Lester B. Pearson High School in the North.
Our story is not unique; the challenges we’ve experienced are playing out in rural and urban communities throughout the province and led to the formation of the Ontario Alliance Against School Closures.
A broken process can only deliver a broken outcome, not in the best interests of our students or our communities. Stop closures and PARs until the broken “baker’s dozen” below can be fixed:
- Provincial elimination of “top-up funding” for so-called “empty pupil spaces” in schools. This policy change penalizes school boards that maintain geographically diverse schools, situated within walking distance (or in rural areas a short bus ride) from where students and their families live. Boards are pressured to eliminate these spaces by closing schools and warehousing students into larger big-box schools, further from where people live.
This must change: The education funding formula needs a complete overhaul to focus on education not counting the number of students that can fit in a classroom.
- A focus on what can be counted, not what counts: Boards can call a PAR if average utilization across several schools is less than 65%. The assumption is that programming choice suffers when utilization falls below this rate – but no evidence need be provided that programming choice is a problem before calling a PAR.
This must change. Communities deserve real, not anecdotal, evidence of programming concerns.
- No guarantee savings from school closures will go into programming. In a classic government Catch-22, the PAR committee cannot discuss what might happen to savings from closing schools before we close the schools, because the decision to close schools hasn’t been made.
This must change. PARs called to deal with programming challenges must be required to show how closures will deliver programming improvements.
- No quality control on data. The five year facility renewal costs for Burlington’s seven schools changed by a factor of $23 million halfway through the process, due, we are told, to a change in company and software used by the province, and whether costs were put inside the five year window or later than five years. Some costs were included that had already been complete. The new data contains errors.
This must change. The process should be stopped until reliable data can be procured.
- PAR relies on enrolment projections that look backward not forward: Enrolment projections are based on Statistics Canada data which look at what has happened, not what will happen. Previous projections underestimated enrolment at Dr. Frank J. Hayden High School, and at Burlington Central. Recent Statistics Canada data has Burlington’s overall population well above projections; household data isn’t projected to be released till May – after the school board director has already released his preferred recommendation for a vote by trustees.
This must change. The process should be stopped until reliable data can be procured.
- No requirement to include elementary students housed in high schools as part of any high school PAR. No solution has been or must be provided for the 260 grade 7/8s who are currently in Burlington Central High School if the school closes.
This must change. PARs called for high schools must require inclusion of all elementary students housed in high schools.
- Impact on community and economic factors eliminated by this government as part of PAR considerations. Many of the schools targeted for closure in Ontario are located in areas where the most vulnerable students live, often in downtowns where the greatest number of low-income families, single parent families and immigrant families are located. Downtown schools like Burlington Central, are located in business districts that provide access to co-op placements, volunteer hours, and work placements at 430 businesses and several civic centres – which will all be lost if the school is closed.
This must change. Community considerations must be added back to the PAR process.
- PAR decisions violate a range of provincial policies. PARs increasingly lean toward closing historic downtown walkable schools and shipping students to larger, newer schools outside their community (for example Barrie Central Collegiate, Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute, and Central which will turn 100 years old in 2022). This directly violates provincial policies to encourage walkable, complete communities, revitalize downtowns, protect our most vulnerable residents, give them equality of opportunity, and preserve Ontario’s heritage resources.
This must change. The government must ensure PARs uphold provincial policies.
- Increased bussing in Burlington: 92% of students attending Burlington Central High School live in the walking catchment. If the school closes, 100% of students will be bussed outside the community. Walking to school is both physically and mentally the healthiest choice – one actively promoted by this government.
This must change. PARs in urban areas should be required to promote walkability.
- A “recommended option” is required to start a PAR: The schools named in the recommendation are immediately on the defensive to save their schools, while other schools ignore the process – until they pop up later in the PAR as a potential option and feel ambushed.
This must change. PARs should have no recommendation or an open-ended recommendation that alerts all schools they could be impacted, to ensure full participation from the beginning.
- Lack of clear communication about the PAR. PAR communication by the Board in Burlington has used jargon and mentioned “options” and “process,” without naming schools that could be closed.
This must change. The province should require boards to use plain language, name schools slated for potential closure and clearly communicate the gravity of proposed changes.
- Involvement of MPPS, elected trustees, and municipal councillors is discouraged so as not to be seen as somehow interfering. This simply drives advocacy underground and behind the scenes, and deprives residents of the democratic right to have their elected representatives represent them – throughout the process, to shape the best outcome, not simply to react when a report and recommendation is already written.
This must change. Trustees, MPPs and municipal councillors should be welcomed to full participation in the process.
- Province and board play hot potato: When residents complain to the board about school closures, board staff throw the hot potato to the province: they are just following provincial policies and funding formulas. When residents complain to the Ministry of Education or their local MPPs, they throw the hot potato back to the board: the trustees have the final decision. It’s a perfect dodge to accountability by any level of government.
This must change. This government must fix the broken policies creating the crisis in education in rural and urban communities across Ontario, not shift responsibility to boards.
Our community’s faith in this process has been sorely tested, like so many other communities across Ontario who have gone through PARs. Residents feel the process is skewed and set up to promote the Board’s preferred option from the beginning. Public engagement has been stage-managed and appears simply as checking off the box of a Ministry requirement that the boards must go through in order to close schools. Incomplete, outdated or incorrect data is permitted. None of the information gleaned from the process needs to be considered by the board, because PARs do not make a recommendation. It’s time to stop the process and begin again.
Residents deserve and demand better than this broken process which is bound to deliver a broken outcome that hurts students, families, rural and urban communities alike. We are asking all parties to work together to support the motion on March 7 for:
- An immediate moratorium on school closures
- An immediate moratorium on existing PARs underway
- Review and reform of broken PAR process
- Review and reform of the broken education funding formula
Marianne Meed Ward & Ian Farwell, PARC members, Burlington Central High School. firstname.lastname@example.org
Dania Thurman & Lynn Crosby, CentralStrong Community Group. www.centralstrong.ca
Cheryl Delugt, PARC member for Lester B Pearson High School
Julie Charters, GHS Here to Stay (Gravenhurst High School)
Hilary Neubauer, Stornoway Growth Society (Thornhill)
Robin Hutcheon, Chair, Rural Schools Matter
Nathan Bruce, Supporters of Hillcrest Public School (Belleville)
Roberta Lamb, Rural Schools Matter (Camden East)
Linda Boyle Foster, Honey Harbour Public School (Honey Harbour)
cc. Ontario Alliance Against School Closures