Ontario Focuses on Unused Space as Budget Remains Flat

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In an announcement of funding details for Ontario schools’ upcoming year, Education Minister Liz Sandals says it will remain the same as this school year’s funding: $22.5 billion. Sandals says students’ per pupil amount will increase because enrollment, overall, is declining.

The Canadian Press reports Sandals has encouraged Ontario’s 72 school boards to lessen their focus on maintaining underused facilities and shift their attention to improving student programming and updating schools.

Sandals explains that 600 of the province’s 5,000 schools are currently operating at 50% of capacity and, in many cases, boards are spending education dollars to maintain empty spaces. Sometimes consolidation of schools is simply not possible in areas like rural and northern Ontario, for example. There boards will have to spend money to deal with the expense of upkeep for empty classrooms.

The government has also issued guidelines to help boards review their schools while at the same time connecting with municipalities and community organizations that might be interested in underused space. Specifically, it has approved $150 million to assist 31 boards with school consolidation packages that would make up a four-year, $750 million process to encourage boards to lessen underused space.

The fund is in place to assist boards in combining schools and to pay for repairing, adding-on, and modifying spaces when necessary. At times, this package will take the shape of remodeling or wiring the schools for the 21st century. Sandals said the boards can make a case for building “one new school to replace three, old, out-of-date ones.”

Meanwhile, at the start of the 2015-2016 school year, boards will have less flexibility to “move money around.” Kristen Rushowy and Robert Benzie, writing for the Toronto Star, report that special education is the area that would be hit the hardest. Most boards have to rob from Peter to pay Paul in order to serve their students who need the most help.  Michael Barrett, head of the Ontario Public Schools, said as special education money:

“…continues to deteriorate, the tendency is for boards to use un-enveloped dollars to meet the gap. But with six more enveloped (or specific use) funds … the closing of that flexibility for boards means they’ll have to cut programs.”

Barrett continued by expressing his concern that the government plans to penalize school boards that do not close or consolidate schools with extra space. The government has also encouraged turning the unused spaces into “community hubs” that would offer services and programming to area families. Some schools are already implementing such programs, says Barrett.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario is concerned that the merging will force elementary students into high school settings in the name of saving money. The teachers are uneasy about the fact that classroom instructors are not receiving enough support as special education students are mainstreamed into classrooms not appropriately equipped for special needs students.

Toronto Catholic schools spokesman John Yan stated that the board already has trouble providing adequate funding to students with special needs. Sandals says, however, that any parents who are concerned about cuts to their children’s programs should talk to their boards.

Fred Hahn of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario said the school funding programs will leave students behind and will speed up the closure of schools across Ontario.

“The minister said she wants to support student achievement and well-being, but her announcement makes it clear the government is ramping up its effort to force potentially hundreds of school closures across the province,” says Hahn. “Taking kids out of their local schools, which are the hearts of their communities, hurts student well-being. Forcing kids in rural communities to endure ever longer bus rides because of school closures will impact student achievement. The government is making these short-sighted decisions based on deeply flawed utilization numbers, and Ontario’s students deserve better.”