Connecting School Closures and Community Planning
Andres, Spencer John
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A major challenge facing communities across the Province of Ontario is the provision of educational facilities for students while balancing community-planning objectives. In recent years, it has become clear that Provincial and local policies coupled with demographic and financial pressures are leading to more closures and the loss of the public resources that are local schools. In the last three years, 172 schools have been slated for closure. In addition, public outcry has grown in volume as the Accommodation Review process is cited as an unsatisfying exercise for all those involved. From a planning perspective, schools are an irreplaceable resource in a community, yet current policy structures have left planners with no power to protect public assets while school boards are limited in the ability to find creative alternative solutions to closure. Therefore, to gain a broader understanding of the policies and processes governing Accommodation Reviews, this research was guided by these key questions: • What roles do school board and provincial policies play in school closure process? • How do these policies affect the pedagogical landscape? • What is the impact of school closures on their respective communities? • How do these educational governance methods compare to community planning policies? • Can school board objectives be reconciled with community planning objectives? These questions were addressed through qualitative surveys and interviews with School Board and Municipal officials and staff. The survey was completed with 39 responses across four communities in Southwest Ontario. The survey and interviews discovered a major gap in the knowledge of local officials pertaining to the comprehensive impact of school closures. In addition, responses spurred further investigation into the policies governing school boards including funding formula and public consultation guidelines. When asked, key respondents pointed to the lack of flexibility and the poor structure of the Province’s Education funding formula as the main challenge for providing educational facilities. In addition, the lack of collaboration between local municipalities and school boards in conjunction with the lack of cohesiveness in Provincial policy mandates from the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs were found to ultimately compound the problems and the frustrations associated with the Accommodation Review process. Of the School Board officials surveyed and interviewed, very few saw the need for comprehensive collaboration with municipalities and local residents. However, nearly every planner surveyed or interviewed criticized this mindset as shortsighted and myopic. This paper found that for the provision of public goods, such as education policies, there is a need to provide flexibility for the local context. Municipalities must have a role to play in the process and must collaborate with local School Boards. In addition, the Accommodation Review process is limited by outdated funding policies from the Province and lacks the public empowerment that leads to creative decision-making with involvement of the electorate.