School properties needn't fall victim to demographics, argues Eric Mang
While Toronto's population is growing, with some estimates projecting half-a-million more humans ambulating around town by 2020, the number of students in public schools appears to be dropping.
The Toronto District School Board, the largest school board in Canada, is seeing enrollment decrease by 4,000 students per year. And a number of schools are now half-empty (or half-full – I guess it depends if you're an optimist or a pessimist).
Toronto School Trustees are trying to wrassle budgets; an ongoing frustration that is partly due to the legacy left by the Harris government's tampering with the school funding formula. Money can be found if Trustees begin to close half-full schools.
Estimates indicate that closing one school could free up $1 million.
However, some parents have emotional attachments to their kids' schools and any suggestion of closure, moving kids to a new and possibly better-funded school, sends some into fits of apoplexy.
But a closed school doesn't need to be demolished and replaced with and a pile of sprawling Mattamy McHomes. These former schools can be used as community centres for adult education, ESL classes, local sports, farmers' markets, extracurricular classes for kids; some things that schools allow after hours and some new activities that may bring a community closer together.
In Washington DC, while some closed schools are being eyed by developers, the Tiger Woods Foundation wants to use one as a learning centre and the University of DC sees potential for an annex. One closed school in Charleston, SC will become a community centre.
Community groups could rent space to hold meetings. And perhaps non-profits could rent permanent rooms. A wing of a former public school could become a warren of offices for community groups and coalitions that cannot afford exorbitant rent in Toronto's privately-owned buildings. This would provide the city with a consistent stream of revenue; something they will lose if they merely sell off school properties to the highest bidder.
Some schools will close. The math is simple: we are not having enough kids to justify keeping a number of schools open. But this doesn’t mean we have to let these public buildings crumble or be auctioned off to developers. These schools once served communities; they can rise from the ashes and continue to play an integral role in bringing neighbourhoods together.