Toronto needs to close some schools. Let me repeat: This city needs to close schools.
If we can get our heads around that unpleasant reality, we will have a much better chance of getting through the business within a reasonable time frame and ending up -- within a generation of kids -- with schools that are well-maintained, welcoming and able to deal with the training needs of the 21st century.
Unfortunately, an "administrative review," like the one launched by the provincial government last month into the Toronto District School Board's closure of Timothy Eaton Business and Technical Institute does not help us get on with it.
This is a government that loves to consult. These administrative reviews are its answer to the natural, but uncomfortable criticisms that follow the closure of any public institution. The reviews -- 13 across Ontario in the past school year -- cannot change a closure decision.
All they can do is say whether a school board followed its stated process for closing a school. To date not a single review has concluded a school board violated its closure process.
Two veteran and wise education hands -- former NDP education minister Dave Cooke and founding Ontario College of Teachers registrar Margaret Wilson -- have been conducting the reviews, at $1,200 a day, for an average of $9,000 a review, according to the education ministry.
Nevertheless the education ministry continues to approve the reviews, as long as someone is able to gather enough signatures of parents or community people who participated in the closure discussions, to equal at least 30% of the school's enrolment.
They also have to show how the process used was not compliant with the board's policy.
If not a single case has been successful, sounds to me like either the fix is in or the vetting process for review applications needs tightening up. If this is supposed to be an exercise to allay people's concerns they haven't had a fair hearing, why get their hopes up and waste taxpayers' money on a process unlikely to validate their complaint? Why not create a tougher standard, and give those who manage to make it over the bar a fighting chance of actually overturning what could indeed be a poorly-made decision?
But the other problem is these reviews risk bogging down the entire exercise of getting our school space down to a manageable size.
As I wrote last month, the Toronto District School Board may consider closing up to 20 schools in the next two years because of plummeting enrolment. About one in every five TDSB schools is below 60% of its enrolment capacity and the board is forecast to lose the equivalent of 44 elementary schools' worth of students -- 20,000 -- over the next 10 years.
Eaton has been the first school the board has closed in seven years. If we're already officially reviewing that closure, imagine the prospects of trying to close another 20. Although Eaton has what has been described as an excellent woodworking program, supported by private industry, and an environment well-suited to special needs students, the school last year had an enrolment of just over 200, forecast to dwindle to 100. With respect to the school's families and staff, this closure was a given. There will be far harder closure cases to deal with -- if we ever get there.
What we should ask ourselves is how can we create at other schools the things that worked for Eaton's remaining students? And instead of dwelling on the past, we'd serve students better if we figured out how to get them improved facilities for the future.