Liberals face heat over school closures across Ontario

School boards in cities and towns across Ontario are considering closing dozens of schools, prompting anger that's now reaching all the way to Queen's Park.

'Schools are on the chopping block in every corner of our province,' says parent activist

Marianne Meed Ward (left) has a son in Grade 11 at Burlington Central High School, currently being considered for closure. She appeared at a news conference Tuesday at Queen's Park with PC Leader Patrick Brown. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

School boards in cities and towns across Ontario are considering closing dozens of schools, prompting anger that's now reaching all the way to Queen's Park.

Parents and children joined PC Leader Patrick Brown at a news conference on Tuesday as he called for a province-wide moratorium on school closures.

"It's not just rural schools anymore, schools are on the chopping block in every corner of our province," said Susan Mackenzie, co-ordinator of the Ontario Alliance Against School Closures. 

Although school closure decisions are made by local boards, Brown blames the provincial government.

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"It's a system the Liberals have set up that actually rewards a school board for closing schools," he said. "They actually tell school boards they're not going to get any new capital funding unless they close a school."

There's no definitive list showing exactly how many of Ontario's 4,900 schools are facing closure. The PCs and the Ontario Alliance Against School Closures said they don't have a precise figure, while the Education Ministry says it doesn't keep tabs on the number of schools local boards are reviewing.

About 600 schools in Ontario are currently at less than half capacity, which puts them up for particular scrutiny under provincial guidelines issued in 2015 to discourage boards from operating mostly-empty schools. 

But boards are also consolidating mostly-full schools to cut costs. For instance, the Halton District School Board is looking to close at least one of Burlington's seven public high schools.  

About 250 students and parents from the Ontario Alliance Against School Closures rallied at Queen's Park in November. (Facebook)

"It becomes a game of Survivor, with every parent community saying, 'Don't close my school,'" said Marianne Meed Ward, mother of two children attending Burlington Central High School. "If our school closes, it will tear a hole in the heart of our city."

School closures are "very tough decisions" for school trustees, said Education Minister Mitzie Hunter.    

"This is actually a conversation that school boards need to have," Hunter told reporters at Queen's Park on Tuesday "Do they have the right composition of schools? Are they providing the best possible programming for students?"  

Hunter is urging boards across the four English and French public and Catholic school systems to look for ways of sharing facilities with each other before resorting to closures.

Demographic changes mean overall school enrolment in Ontario has dropped steadily since peaking in 2002. Liberal governments have provided hundreds of millions of dollars in top-up funding over the years to subsidize rural schools, in addition to the standard per-pupil amount that the province provides to school boards. 

"I understand how difficult it is to manage facilities, to manage schools in an environment where, in many parts of the province, we're seeing declining enrolment," said Premier Kathleen Wynne in Question Period.

But Wynne rejected what she called "the blunt instrument of a moratorium". 

The Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty put a moratorium on school closures in December 2003, shortly after it was elected.