School Closures and Communities

There must be a better way

In Ontario, over 2,000 schools have been permanently shuttered since 1990. Right now, 600 schools are under review for potential closure; 500 of these schools are located in rural communities and small towns. This is an important and high-profile issue for small towns and rural communities that are already stressed by the local impacts of a changing economic structure, an aging society, and concerns about long-term viability.

Why is school closure such a concern? Schools play many roles in our communities. School boards would remind us that they exist to educate our children, which is true; however, these schools are so much more. Municipal politicians and community residents regard schools as an important part of the community’s fabric and self-image. Some researchers have argued that schools should be classified as a public good. Schools are also considered key to building a community’s social capital. There is evidence that a healthy, stable community enhances students’ academic performance and by extension, the viability of schools.

Schools are important symbols, valued as the focal point of the community, “as markers of community history.”1 School buildings and equipment support community activities; they are places where residents meet and build connections. Schools contribute in a big way to a community’s health, well-being, and sense of place. Local government planners also recognize the important and diverse role played by community schools as a stabilizing factor, especially in inner city communities and in small towns and rural communities. As Witten et al. note, “schools are more than buildings where a curriculum is delivered.”2

Why, then, are schools being closed? Ontario’s school boards are under intense pressure to do more with less, and have struggled for years with fiscal constraints and declining enrolments. Funding shortfalls in provincial allocations to school boards reflect decades of neoliberal policies; the funding formula has changed little since the late 1990s during the Mike Harris era in Ontario.

In larger communities, the funding formula in Ontario has privileged the construction of new suburban schools over the renewal of existing (often inner city) school properties. Funding shortfalls are often the stimulus for accommodation review (school closure) processes; other reasons can include declining enrolments, compromised program viability, escalating costs associated with maintenance of an aging physical plant, and the need to meet demands for schools in newer suburban neighbourhoods. The cumulative effect of all these factors is the closure of community schools.

The accommodation review process

School closures make for great headlines. We’ve all seen the heated newspaper editorials and television interviews with upset parents. This is certainly a hot button, high-profile community issue for local government leaders and urban planners in many parts of Canada. When a school closure decision is announced, the immediate response is shock and disbelief, followed by anger, resentment and resistance that takes various forms. There are few cases where school closures could be considered a positive experience for all involved, and that includes school board trustees and staff. This is because accommodation review processes are characterized by conflict and intense emotions.

With few exceptions, accommodation review processes have been harshly criticized by just about everybody on the receiving end of a closure decision. In Ontario, school boards manage these processes using the Ontario government’s guidelines. The accommodation review evaluation model focuses on factors related to the educational experience, which reflects the expectation that school boards will provide a high-quality education. This is an appropriate objective. However, where that education is delivered – the community and its viability – seems incidental. As a result, the impacts of a closure on a community’s stability, economy or environment are not recognized or adequately addressed.

As one might expect, there have been many calls for change to these evaluative criteria and to the decision-making process itself. A key issue concerns the nature of school closure decision-making processes that are designed to be “consultative,” in the narrow (and minimal) sense that residents have limited opportunities to voice their opinions – i.e. four town hall-type meetings with school board trustees. These processes are not collaborative, nor are they always considered respectful.

This seemingly intentional passive role for community stakeholders and apparently unilateral decision-making power by school board trustees is at odds with the expectation Canadians have of transparency and accountability on the part of all public sector decision-makers, and of having a meaningful role in decision-making. Interestingly, local governments – which are responsible for providing the services and policies that create a healthy quality of life in communities – cannot challenge school board decisions. Indeed, school boards seem to operate in “splendid isolation.”

To complicate things even more, provincial government Ministry policies on education, infrastructure and urban planning are not coordinated, at least not in Ontario. These Ministries and their staff operate in rigid organizational silos with minimal evidence of inter-Ministerial coordination on school location and closure decisions.

Impacts of closures

So school closure is a fact of life in many Canadian communities. Older, smaller schools are especially vulnerable. A school closure can have a significant and often negative impact on students, families and communities. When a school closes, it becomes difficult to attract families with young, school-age children. Businesses can have trouble attracting employees with families. The loss of a community school symbolizes a community in trouble.

The negative impacts of a school closure can be more significant and severe in rural communities than in urban centres. Rural communities and small towns in many parts of Ontario and Canada are struggling. They have experienced loss of a traditional economic base and its associated jobs; an increasingly aging population as young people seek work elsewhere; and the elimination of key public goods and services, such as hospitals and schools, that mean so much to these communities and contribute to their viability.

The loss of these local institutions can adversely affect the long-term vitality, resilience, and overall well-being of a rural community. Schools in rural communities are a source of local identity and community pride, and they typically reflect a community’s particular culture, values, or way of life. Schools provide rural communities with important infrastructure that local residents need and that might not be available otherwise, such as recreation facilities, libraries, and gathering places for social events. When a school closes in a small town or rural community, children are bused to schools elsewhere, an experience that can be stressful for children and parents.

There must be a better way

We have to accept that schools must be closed, for all kinds of good and practical reasons. However, the decision-making process that leads to a closure must be changed. It’s time to ask some fundamental questions about the accommodation review process. For example, why don’t school boards pay enough attention to community impacts when making these closure decisions? We need accommodation review processes that are informed by studies of the social, economic and environmental impacts of school closure. We need to question school consolidation strategies (is bigger really always better?).

Why must we have decision-making processes that are so often confrontational, secretive and divisive? We know there are far more constructive and collaborative decision-making models that have been developed and are commonly used in community-oriented, problem-solving situations. The example of community planning practice across Canada comes to mind. Until the 1970s, community planning decisions were made by local elites without consideration of residents’ perspectives. Today, community planning public consultation and participation processes offer stakeholders the opportunity to contribute to decision-making in a meaningful way. These processes are characterized by engagement and education of stakeholders; respect for diverse values and views; mutual learning; identification and advancement of the public interest; and, ideally, shared responsibility for decision-making. To date, we have not been able to identify comparable processes in Ontario’s accommodation review process. In the event that schools are closed, at least the results could be better understood and eventually accepted by community stakeholders.

And, why don’t school boards and local governments work better, together? When considering alternatives to a closure, why not fully integrate school board facility planning with their municipal government counterpart’s community planning efforts? What’s getting in the way here?

We argue that many of these problems originate with the province. Ontario’s Ministry of Education develops accommodation review guidelines for implementation by school boards. It’s time to take a very close, critical look at the provincial legislation that governs school boards in the context of the extensive demographic and economic changes that are taking place in our communities.

This brings us to the bottom line. We need to prioritize the community’s needs. Let’s accept that schools are a public good; these are not simply buildings that provide a structure to deliver curriculum. We need a better, more complete and nuanced understanding of the impacts of school closures for urban and rural communities. We need to find ways to coordinate inter-ministerial and inter-governmental decision-making. And, we need to design accommodation review processes that are truly consultative and collaborative.

It’s time to find a better way to deal with these complex issues. Let’s do that now.

En Bref : Les auteurs soutiennent que les écoles ne sont pas que des bâtiments fournissant une structure pour livrer des curriculums; ce sont des biens publics. Il faut une nouvelle approche élargie de planification d’écoles et d’examen des installations, assortie d’une meilleure coordination entre les ministères ainsi qu’entre les conseils scolaires et les gouvernements locaux, de même qu’un processus de consultation communautaire plus collaboratif et une reconnaissance que l’impact sur la collectivité est un facteur pertinent.

Illustration: iStock

First published in Education Canada, June 2017

1 R. A. Kearns, N. Lewis, T. McCreanor and K. Witten, “The Status Quo Is not an Option: Community impacts of school closure in South Taranaki, New Zealand,”Journal of Rural Studies 25, no. 1 (2009): 31-140.

2 K. Witten, T. McCreanor, T. Kearns and L. Ramasubramanian, “The Impacts of a School Closure on Neighbourhood Social Cohesion: Narratives from Invercargill, New Zealand,” Health and Place 7, no. 4 (2001): 307-317.

Meet the Expert

Mark Seasons

Mark Seasons is a professor with the School of Planning at the University of Waterloo. His research interests include planning for decline, the community impacts of school closures, and planning for climate change.

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