“If you look at the number of schools being recommended for closing, in Catholic boards it is a much smaller number (compared to the public boards),” said Pat Daly, referring to figures contained in a recent study by People for Education,
In the report published by the research and advocacy group on May 4, People for Education highlight 121 schools from the province’s 72 boards which have been recommended for closure this school year. Among them are 38 Catholic schools, mostly for elementary grades, of which 14 are reported as “pending” the board’s final vote.
Fourteen of the province’s 29 English Catholic school boards made no closure recommendations during the 2016-2017 school year, according to the report.
“The numbers from the Catholic board side ... is not that unusual,” said Daly. “I don’t think it is disproportionately higher than some years in the past.”
However, recent changes by the Ministry of Education to the funding model, such as an additional $6 million cut to the Geographical Circumstance Grant which helps top up those in single-school communities, is leaving some boards struggling. Factor in 25 years of drastically changing demographics and some schools are simply destined to sink.
“Those two coming together clearly have had an impact on rural schools,” said Daly. “Rural (Ontario) has a real challenge and we need to work together to solve that.”
Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, said that rural areas have faced a “disproportionate impact” due to the funding changes and a decline in enrolment over the years.
“There are fundamentally deep flaws in the process that are not working for rural Ontario,” she told The Toronto Star. “It’s a very big impact on a huge swath of Ontario that we have to take very seriously.”
Education Minister Mitzie Hunter, however, defended the province’s efforts to support rural schools.
“We understand the vital role that schools play in any community, particularly our rural communities,” said Hunter. “That’s why we’ve increased funding by over 50 per cent to rural school boards since taking office in 2003, and students in rural school boards receive $1,200 more per pupil than peers in urban boards.”
Although schools in rural communities have been most at risk, those in urban areas are not immune to the threat of closure.
Of the 201 Catholic schools within the Toronto board, six schools made the list put forward by People for Education.
Among those reported to be closing is St. Paul Catholic School, one of the oldest school’s in the province, dating back to 1842. There is a plan to consolidate St. Michael’s Catholic School into St. Paul’s until a replacement school capable of housing 500 pupils is built.
John Yan, a spokesperson for Toronto Catholic, said the historic school will not be shuttering soon.
“St. Paul is not closing any time soon,” said Yan. “It was part of a Pupil Accommodation Review (and) that result was that St. Michael’s Catholic School would consolidate into St. Paul. The long-term plan, subject to ministry funding, is for a new building for the school at the Duke of York site that TCDSB owns about half a kilometre away.”
Of the six schools reported to be slotted for closure, Yan said only one, Holy Redeemer Catholic School, is on the immediate chopping block.
“(The report) is a snapshot in time and it is not a live database,” he said, explaining the discrepancies. “The discrepancies are caused between the time that a PAR (Public Accommodation Review) is initiated and the decision is made at the board of trustees level, and the final report is forwarded to the ministry.”
Daly, chair of the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board, said a similar discrepancy exists within his board.
“In Hamilton we had three schools as part of an ARC (Accommodation Review Committee) review and in the end, subject to government funding, approved closing only one of them,” he said. “But in the People for Education report it had indicated that we had closed two (schools).”
It is not clear how many more discrepancies, inaccuracies or outdated figures there are in the report, so Daly suggests if your school is on the list you might want to check it twice.
“People for Education provide a good service, but these things are quite complicated so obviously it is possible that they simply just got some of the information wrong,” he said. “Parents would already know if their school was being recommended for closure, but if they are not they should be checking with their local school board.”
Hunter said the ministry will be conducting community engagement sessions with the public and local boards.
“Potential school closures are among the most difficult decisions that school boards and communities have to consider,” she said in an e-mail dated May 5. “That’s why today our government is hosting our first of 10 rural engagement sessions across the province. We want to assure parents that our number one concern is the best possible outcome for students.”