By Connor Lynch
School closures in Ontario are not as widespread as some had feared but as schools close, rural students will be hardest hit.
Ontario’s Education Minister Mitzie Hunter said in 2015 that there were as many as 600 underutilized schools in Ontario. In the 2014-2015 year there were 4,893 publicly-funded schools in Ontario.
While many feared that 600 underutilized schools translated to 600 closures, it’s more like 110 likely school closures in Ontario, excluding northern Ontario.
In Western Ontario, three per cent or 61 schools are currently recommended for closure, or have already closed in the last year. However, 43 of those schools recommended for closure are either in a rural area or at the edge of an urban area and likely accept rural students.
The issue lies with the province’s funding structure. School boards are funded per pupil. Schools operating at less than 100 per cent capacity are either underfunded to maintain the facilities or draw funding away from more populated schools.
Rural areas, with smaller and less dense populations, are therefore taking the brunt of closures.
The review process requires public consultation after board staff make their initial recommendation. After consultation, school board staff release their final report and their recommendations. “These final staff reports are coming out and they’re unchanged from the initial staff report,” said Ontario Alliance against School Closure spokesperson, Susan MacKenzie.
Rural parents are scrambling to defend their local schools to spare their children longer bus rides, including rides that could take longer than the time the students spend in class. But frustration abounds for parents burning the midnight oil coming up with alternatives to closure but seeing no change in the final staff report. “It just proves that the process is a democratic façade,” added Mac-Kenzie. “(Parents) are being heard, but not listened to.”
MPP Steve Clark (PC-Leeds-Grenville) has called on the province to put a moratorium on rural school closures before school boards start voting this year on more closures. That was voted down in the provincial legislature on March 7. The Ontario Alliance against School Closures has twice called for the province to issue a moratorium on rural school closures.
The ministry of education’s website says that the province does not have the authority to change or overrule school boards after they’ve voted to close a school.