Wednesday, February 23, 2005

A weak plan to fix schools

PUBLICATION: The Ottawa Citizen
DATE: 2005.02.23
PNAME: City Editorial
SOURCE: The Ottawa Citizen


A weak plan to fix schools


The Ontario government wants to fix schools that are in disrepair and build replacements for schools that are beyond fixing. That sounds like a good plan until you understand that the work will largely be done with borrowed money. And the government's new rules will make it almost impossible for school boards to close little-used schools.

The McGuinty government last week announced $280 million in annual provincial funding for repairs to run-down schools and for new schools. The government is counting mainly on borrowed money to pay for $4-billion worth of renovation and new construction work. Ottawa's English public board, for instance, will get

$3.5 million for $47 million in renovations and repairs. The English Catholic board in Ottawa will get $1.4 million per year for $19.6 million of work. The province is essentially saying: Here's some money now for your fix-ups; we'll send more over the next few years so you can pay off the loan.

Taxpayers are understandably wary of any government that wants to spend now and pay $2.1 billion back later. A better approach would be to simply pay to fix the schools you really want and close the ones you don't really need.

But closing some of Ontario's 4,800 schools is going to be very difficult under new rules set out in the government's "Good Places to Learn" policy, announced by Premier Dalton McGuinty and Education Minister Gerard Kennedy.

The government is lifting the ban on school closures but imposing 10 new guidelines that will almost guarantee no schools will be closed in a reasonable time frame, if at all. When a board wants to close schools, it must provide a year's notice, create a "school valuation process" approved by the ministry, provide several chances for public input and appoint a task force to gain "community consensus." Once a board decision is finally made, anyone who opposes the closure can derail it with a

50-signature petition, which would trigger the arrival of an "independent facilitator" appointed by the ministry to "conduct a review of the process." Independent facilitators are going to have a lucrative couple of years in Ontario.

Closing schools is no fun and extraordinarily upsetting for the people and communities involved. But we need to get a grip here. There are schools in parts of Ontario, especially the North and rural areas, where there are hardly any students. Queen's Park central command can fiddle with process all it likes. It's not in the taxpayers' interest to heat and maintain nearly vacant buildings.

What we've seen over the years is school boards that generally go to great lengths to listen to parents and debate the placement of students in schools. Closing schools is a process that drags on for years. Some schools have been closed, but a lot have been saved.

Now we're headed on a path that will keep almost all schools open, though this is a luxury we cannot afford.


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