January 26th, 2015
Winston Tinglin, Interim Executive Director of Social Planning Toronto
Re: Minister of Education Directives Arising from the Wilson Review of the TDSB – reduction of underutilized spaces across schools and management of capital assets.
Good evening, and thank you for the opportunity to speak today. My name is Winston Tinglin, Interim Executive Director of Social Planning Toronto. We are a not-for-profit organization engaged in independent social planning, community research and policy analysis. One of the areas we work in is around education and how it impacts the welfare of the community, especially with regard to issues around poverty, marginalization and equity. I am here to speak to directive #9 of the Minister of Education’s 13 directives to the TDSB.
Item 9 directs the TDSB to “provide a three-year capital plan that should reflect a comprehensive, system-wide assessment of the pupil accommodation needs of the board”, and sub-section b requires “a clear indication of how the board intends to reduce underutilized spaces across its schools…”. We are concerned that in the implementation of this directive, a large number of schools could be closed without adequate consideration of its impact on students, their families and the community at large.
The TDSB have frequently stated their reasons for closing schools: that in an era of fiscal constraint, they can no longer fund facilities with low enrollment and underutilized spaces. We feel this is too narrow and limited a view of schools and the definition of education. Schools, and especially those with underutilized spaces, have huge potential to become a hub for the community and deliver a broad range of benefits for all age groups and people from all walks of life.
A 2013 City of Toronto Staff Report stated “schools are places of learning, but are also locations for child care, recreation programs, community meetings and neighbourhood green space. The closure and sale of schools and their lands can have a range of effects on neighbourhoods, particularly those neighbourhoods that are already underserved and also those facing the impact of residential and mixed-use development”.
We know that the downtown core has almost doubled its population since 1976, with a steady growth rate of 18% since 2006. The largest demographic group in the downtown is made up by those between the ages of 25-29 (Ostler, 2014). They are young families looking for schools and daycare spaces for their children. Having these facilities located close to home means children can walk or bike to school, instead of having to be bused or driven. Such active transportation is what Public Health has called for in the face of a childhood obesity epidemic (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2014).
We also know that the inner suburbs in the city’s east and west end, such as Scarborough and Rexdale, have seen the highest rise in poverty. These areas also contain the largest number of recent immigrants (Hulchanski, 2006). Schools are often the only places where community agencies and groups can deliver employment workshops, ESL classes, social and recreational programs. Without these spaces, residents lose the support they need, and communities destabilize.
Finally, many schools house daycare centres. The closing of these schools would mean that parents, especially low-income parents, would have a harder time securing childcare, which hugely impacts their ability to pursue education and employment opportunities.
We realize that the root of the problem is the province’s funding formula, which does not take into account community use of schools and the role a school plays or can play in a community. The solution to this problem is bigger than what any one player can deliver. It requires inter-ministerial and inter-jurisdictional collaboration. If the school is an asset to us all, then shouldn’t we all take responsibility for it? The municipal government has already voiced a need to coordinate strategies with the TDSB and find common ground through the School Lands Acquisition Framework. We ask the TDSB to redouble their efforts in seeking partnerships with other sectors, such as Parks, Forestry and Recreation, that stand to benefit from co-locating services in school buildings and embracing a community-hub model.
In a 2014 mandate letter, the Premier asked the Ministry of Education to work with other departments to develop a community hubs policy, specifically stating using “empty school space across the province for community resources”. Furthermore, the city of Toronto has just announced its commitment to delivering a poverty reduction strategy. There is a common thread here: we believe school as a community hub is the key to fostering a vital and more equitable community, and we urge the TDSB to take a stand in bringing that vision to reality.