Some of the schools identified by the Toronto District School Board as underutilized are arguably red herrings that are unlikely to be closed, Education Minister Liz Sandals said Thursday.
However, the minister said, the data point out what she has been saying all along.
“[The TDSB needs] to do a better job of reviewing their accommodation and using their resources more wisely,” she said. “Identifying a list is not part of a plan. I asked for a plan.”
A new report from the Toronto District School Board released this week shows one in five of its schools could be at risk of closure due to falling enrolment.
The numbers released at a committee meeting Wednesday night say 130 of the board's 589 schools are operating at 65 per cent capacity or lower. That includes 84 of the board's 473 elementary and junior high schools, as well as 46 of the 116 secondary schools.
They include Eastern Commerce Collegiate, Kensington Community School and Nelson Mandela Park Public School.
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The board will look at each school and decide whether to close it.
But there are other options, the board's spokesman said.
"The fact is at the Toronto District School Board we have a comprehensive, responsible 10-year plan that looks into all the other factors, not just a single number," said Ryan Bird, communications officer for the board. "Perhaps it doesn't result in a school closure should a program be shifted."
That 10-year plan includes a boundary change study that will be used to reduce crowding at over-capacity schools, utilize surplus space and designate addresses to a closer school.
Capacity isn't the only way to measure use of space, school trustees said.
Jennifer Story, trustee for Ward 15 Toronto-Danforth, says one school in her ward that isn’t at capacity because it serves at-risk students and those with special needs. Another is developing a French immersion class, which will bring it up to 80 per cent of capacity in five years, she said in an interview with CBC Radio's Metro Morning.
“It’s a complicated algorithm here,” she said.
The list paints an unfair picture of what's happening at many schools, said Marit Stiles, trustee for Ward 9, Davenport.
"There's child-care centres. There's adult ESL," she said.
Future demand — due to the city’s growth — also needs to be taken into consideration, when deciding whether to sell properties, Story said.
“The last piece that we need to look very carefully is that once we lose that land, we’ll never get it back,” she said. “So I need to be convinced that, as the city intensifies, we’re not going to turn around and regret that decision 20, 25 years down the road.”
Stiles echoed the same sentiment.
"Anybody living in this city knows a neighbourhood can change on a dime and we have to take that into account," she told CBC News.
The province has asked the board to sell underused properties to cut costs and pay for a backlog of repairs at other schools in Toronto.
Projected enrolment also released
The numbers released Wednesday also show projected enrolment every five years for the next two decades, which Story said needs to be included in the full picture.
Nelson Mandela Park Public School, for example, is currently at 44 per cent capacity, but is projected to rise to 99 per cent by 2019 and be over capacity by 2024.
The school’s principal Jason Kandankery spent the day calming concerned parents.
“My job as a principal is to assure parents when the information isn’t fully out there what the actual story is. This school isn’t going anywhere,” he said.
Story said she understands the latest report could lead to concerns and anxiety for parents, but she said there will be plenty of discussions between the school board, the Ministry of Education and the community before decisions are made.
“I caution everybody this is just the beginning of a long conversation,” she said on Metro Morning. “We are going to be talking about how we use our school spaces, not just as sites for education, but also as community hubs.”