TORONTO — Ontario's Progressive Conservatives called Tuesday for a moratorium on school closures in the province and a review of the guidelines that determine them.
The Liberal government is trying to find savings on the backs of students by putting schools on the chopping block, said PC Leader Patrick Brown.
"School closures have a devastating impact on our communities," he said.
"The Liberal government's new rules completely ignore the value of our schools. It leaves our community representatives shut out from the process and recklessly reduces the amount of consultation required before closing a school, speeding the consultation process to just over two months."
Premier Kathleen Wynne noted those decisions are made by school boards when faced with demographic changes such as declining enrolment, but admitted there have been situations in which the boards haven't consulted properly or enough.
"Where those conversations are not happening, they should be happening," she said. "The minister of education will facilitate those conversations. But it behooves school trustees, school boards, municipalities and community groups to work together for the best of the community. That's a much more productive process than the blunt instrument of a moratorium that does not recognize the individual opportunities in every community."
Marianne Meed Ward, a Burlington councillor, has two children at a high school being considered for closure. If that happens, she said, the students who now can mostly walk to school will be bused to different locations.
"If our school closes it will tear a hole in the heart of our city," she said, adding that the process pits parents against each other. "It becomes a game of survivor, with every parent community saying, 'please don't close my school.'"
It's not clear just how many schools are being considered for closure as Education Minister Mitzie Hunter was unwilling to provide a number.
"It's not about that because (the school boards) are having conversations and they're getting input," she said. "I'm not going to provide you with an arbitrary number based on the question that you've asked. It's very important that school boards provide an opportunity for input from the community and that's what the pupil accommodation review guidelines help them to do."
Hunter walked away as reporters tried to ask how many schools had already closed during the Liberal government's tenure. A spokesman later said she had to get to a caucus meeting to deliver remarks.
"Since the pupil accommodation reviews are currently underway and are a strictly local process, any information provided to the government by the board is not final," Richard Francella wrote in an email.
"This is what the minister was referring to in her scrum today. We need to wait until the board completes a final accommodation review and a final decision is made by the school board trustees to receive reliable data. Once we receive this data, we will be pleased to share it with you."
Hunter and the infrastructure minister sent a letter to school boards Monday telling them it is the government's "strong preference" that before closures, they fully explore sharing facilities between the four English, French, public and Catholic school systems.
Of the 4,900 publicly funded schools in Ontario, 39 have joint-use arrangements, in which students from one or more boards use the same building.
Brown was to introduce a motion Tuesday to put a moratorium on rural school closures, though he said the problem isn't limited to rural schools. NDP Leader Andrea Horwath agreed, but said she would be supporting the motion.
"We've been raising the alarm bells about school closures all across Ontario for years now," she said. "This government, in fact, back in 2003 ran on a mandate to stop school closures, to put a moratorium, so I think it's quite rich that they've been closing the number of schools that they have around this province."
Hunter said that since 2003, the Liberals have increased per-student funding by 63 per cent and invested more than $16 billion in school infrastructure, "including nearly 450 new and improved schools in rural Ontario."
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press