Unions rally over possible school closures in Toronto

Photo: Flickr/Cybrarian

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On Tuesday February 4, dozens of teachers and concerned parents demonstrated outside the Toronto District School Board (TDBS) office to protest the potential closure of several Toronto schools. 

The rally was organized by the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF), the Elementary Teachers of Toronto (ETT) and CUPE 4400, who represent teachers and support staff in Toronto's schools.

Speaking to the crowd, OSSTF-Toronto Vice-President Leslie Wolfe addressed Premier Kathleen Wynne, who started her political career as a school trustee. "The irony is not lost on anyone," said Wolfe, "You began your political career fighting this very funding formula that you are now using to do something you yourself would not do as a trustee: close down schools. We are calling on Kathleen Wynne to stop this process foisted upon the Toronto Board of Education."

In response to the findings of a recent review of the Toronto District School Board, Ontario's Minister of Education issued 13 directives that TDSB Trustees must comply with by this Friday, February 13, 2015.

The unions say that they have serious concerns about a number of the recommendations made by the Minister; in particular, the limitations put on School Trustees to represent their communities, and the possible closure or reorganization of many schools. 

"The investigation was asked for to look into the dysfunctional relationships between the Trustees and the TDSB and what the Ministry said was that the blame was all on the trustees," explained ETT President John Smith.

"Consequently they have taken away their budgets, they've taken away their offices, they've taken away their assistants. And what this severely does is, it curtails their ability to be the voice of parents in the community as the voice of education. It also takes away their ability to have oversight on what the TDSB senior staff does. That's really important. It's an attack on democracy and also, trustees in Toronto have a history of activism and a history of supporting parents, especially from low-income and new immigrant communities in the city. And that voice will now not be there." 

On Wednesday, February 4, 2015, the TDSB released a list of 60 schools that have been identified for closure or reorganization.

As the Toronto Star reports, the TDSB says that just under half of the city's schools are less than 65 per cent full. However, the unions argue that the school board's limited approach does not take into account that schools are often far more active than their utilization rate suggests. TDSB's statistics do not factor in that many schools have daycare spaces, spots for community meetings and social events, adult learning centres and sports facilities.

Focusing on utilization ignores that many of these schools support students with special needs, provide alternate programs, and serve as community hubs. More than that, ETT's analysis shows that slated closures will disproportionately affect Toronto's most vulnerable neighbourhoods.

"Our most vulnerable students in the poorest areas, the most social deprived areas of the city are the ones that have their programs and their schools under most threat," said ETT President John Smith.

Using the TDSB's own Learning Opportunities Index (LOI), a metric which uses census data to measure the external challenges facing students in a particular area, the schools with the highest index are those where the students face the greatest external challenges to their learning. The ETT found that 18 per cent of the elementary schools on the chopping block are in the top fifth of the LOI and 68 per cent ranked are in the top half of the LOI.

Yesterday the Canadian Centre for Policy Studies also released a study showing how chronic funding pressures have played out in TDSB schools since 1997. The report's author, Hugh Grant, finds that the current funding crisis in Ontario's education system is a hangover from the Mike Harris-era provincial government. Grant argues that tight funding and school closures could be totally avoidable.

After Tuesday's rally, parents followed trustees into the TDSB offices to attend a special meeting scheduled to address the issue of school closures. Several trustees have objected to the closures. However, the dissenting trustees were ultimately outnumbered in a vote that determined that 48 schools will be reviewed for closure over the next three years, and the TDSB may sell as many as 20 additional sites.

 

Ella Bedard is rabble.ca's labour intern. She has written about labour issues for Dominion.ca and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People.

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