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Education Action: Toronto: Jane and Finch Parents Blast Chris Spence

Education Action: Toronto

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Jane and Finch Parents Blast Chris Spence

by Dudley Paul

Chris Spence had the bemused look of a running back who has just gained 40 yards for the wrong team. Things started out okay, but…

About 250 Jane and Finch parents and community members had come to an Area Review Committee (ARC) meeting at Brookview Middle School last Thursday night fearing the loss of a school in their already struggling neighbourhood. At least one of Shoreham, Driftwood, Gosford or Blacksmith Public Schools will be sold, while others in the group are renovated to accommodate children from Kindergarten to grade 8. Ten schools are slated to close across the TDSB duly processed through a series of ARC meetings.

Against this backdrop , Toronto District School Board Director Spence presented his Vision of Hope: educators need to keep a “laser focus” on student achievement; schools should be “full-service” open to the community throughout the day and evening; “academies’ for parents will support children in this quest for academic excellence.

That is why, Spence went on, at least one school in the area must close and be sold to allow savings and profits to be “reinvested.” Which school is on the chopping block? Community members were asked to choose between options on a ballot provided.

The irony of a vision of hope that leads to a school closing was not lost on community members, who reacted furiously. Former area student, Clayton Thomas wanted specifics about reinvestment of money into schools. “I wish you had a direct plan for the community. There has been nothing but confusion,” he said.

York University student Suzanne Naraine also went to school in the neighbourhood. She said that this ARC has not been transparent and asked where the money is going to come from for renovations to schools to enable them to accommodate students from K to 8. She wanted to know where children will go to school, when enrolment increases, if one of them is sold,. In the meantime, she argued excess space should be used to turn schools into neighbourhood hubs, something that would really fulfill Spence’s “vision.”

Friends of Gosford representative Frans Bronkhorst said that the TDSB has taken a “patronizing attitude” towards the community, ending a previous meeting when community members refused to break into smaller more malleable groups and declining to provide contact information for other community groups going through ARCs throughout the city. He said that simple questions have gone unanswered. How much money will be made by selling a school? Will it all remain in the community or be put towards the board’s burgeoning debt? Where is the plan for all the changes that will happen to the community?

Both the Liberal government and Conservatives want trustees to close schools said resident and former trustee, Errol Young. He added that trustees should refuse and let the province appoint a board supervisor to do it. A supporter of the school closing plan, and visibly angry ward trustee Stehanie Payne retorted: “I’m prepared to let a supervisor come in, but then they’ll come in and have the leverage to close all the schools.”

Residents have good reason to be furious. They are being asked to sit in the dark and vote on one of several options that will result in one thing: a school closing. As many said, there is no plan about how this will work, what the board will make closing and selling a school in tough economic times and how much money the community will receive. While the board sent out its top people, local principals, Executive Superintendent Donna Quan, local Superintendent Glenford Duffus, director Spence and trustee Stephanie Payne, no one had specific answers for people’s questions.

And just how much will the board make from the sale of one of these schools? After the meeting Spence was uncomfortable being specific, “I hate to say it, but now that you press me – about $5 million.” Add in some savings in maintenance costs and you still don’t have much to put towards retrofitting schools with the labs, shops and gym facilities needed to educate young adolescents. Stack $5 million against a projected 2010 – 2011 budget deficit of $17 million and a whopping $2 billion backlog in maintenance and other necessary capital expenses and you have to wonder how this or the sale of 9 other schools is going to help. It’s like selling your house to pay for next week’s groceries.

As always, when you have a closed set of options, important questions don’t get even a glimmer of light: Where is the fix for the Harris-era funding formula, promised and undelivered by the Liberals? How can a government dragging along in education funding, at the bottom end of 63 districts across North America, be thinking about closing schools rather than shaping up? Is there an overall plan for use of excess space across the city, so that neighbourhoods don’t have to give up valuable assets?

It was very clear that the people filling the Brookview lunchroom will not stand for vague answers from the board. They also need to have trustee Stephanie Payne in their corner. Yet other than going on the defensive when she was pressed about letting the provincial government do its own dirty work closing schools, she remained silent up there at the front with all the other board officials who had been sent to support its position. It was a telling image. Not a word of support came from her for her constituents who stand to lose a lot while they gain, probably, nothing.

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