Declining enrolment is taking a huge toll on Canada’s largest school board, and one in five schools now are targets for possible closing.

The Toronto District School Board released a list on Wednesday evening that compares the number of students an institution can accommodate to its enrolment numbers.

Of the 473 elementary schools, 84 are using 65 per cent or less of their capacity in the current academic year. The situation is bleaker for secondary schools, with 46 of 116 falling below the 65-per-cent threshold.

The school board is coming under renewed pressure from the Ontario government to sell surplus properties. However, the schools with the lowest enrolment will not automatically be sold. The school board must now look at the list of schools that are under the 65-per-cent level and decide whether to close them.

Staff at the TDSB released the list to trustees at a committee meeting in response to an order from Education Minister Liz Sandals to come up with a plan to address falling student numbers.

The issue is one of the most controversial for trustees. They got a glimpse of how emotionally attached residents are to their local schools at a public meeting on Monday evening, when several people expressed fears about closings in their neighbourhoods.

“We are concerned that in the implementation of this directive, a large number of schools could be closed without adequate consideration of the impact on students, their families and the community at large,” Winston Tinglin, interim executive director of not-for-profit Social Planning Toronto, said at Monday’s meeting. “Schools have huge potential to become a hub for the community and deliver a broad range of benefits.”

Ms. Sandals has given the school board until Feb. 13 to grapple with several issues, including closing trustees’ offices at the school board’s headquarters with the exception of the chair, developing policies that clearly articulate the roles and responsibilities of trustees and senior staff, and cutting education director Donna Quan’s salary to bring it into compliance with the province’s wage-freeze legislation. Ms. Quan has agreed to the pay reduction to $272,000 from $289,000.

Education consultant Margaret Wilson highlighted the issue of declining use in her sweeping report on the school board, released this month.

The report criticizes the school board for failing to manage its capital assets. Instead of selling schools with low enrolment to finance repairs and renovations at others, the report says, the board continues to operate them at huge expense.

“Trustees told me that they ‘horse trade’ for votes and support each other in saving the schools in their wards,” the report says.

Trustees are often reluctant to approve the sale of a school, in part because changing demographics can lead to higher enrolment down the road. Of the 84 elementary schools where space is under-used today, for instance, the board projects that 21 will be above the 65-per-cent threshold by 2024.

Ms. Sandals ordered the school board to provide a “clear indication” of how it intends to reduce the number of schools using 65 per cent or less of their space.

Many are well below that level. Kensington Community School, for example, has space for 447 elementary students but only 113 are enrolled. The ratio of empty space at Fairbank Memorial Community School is only slightly better, with 173 children in a building that can accommodate 500.

In the high school sector, Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute, which was built for 903 students, has just 62. Vaughan Road Academy has 349 students filling its 1,179 spaces. The number of schools sitting more than half empty is a huge drain on the rest of the system. The school board is supposed to sell surplus properties to raise money for much-needed school repairs. Its backlog of repairs totals $3-billion.

Declining enrolment was one of several items on the agenda for the school board’s planning and priorities committee on Wednesday evening. Staff presented trustees with hundreds of pages of new policies drafted in recent days to address the Education Minister’s concerns. Many at the meeting said they felt overwhelmed with the enormity of the task on such a short deadline.

“I’d like the minister to name the schools that she believes should be closed,” trustee Ken Lister said.

Trustee Marit Stiles said she worries about the effect of the news on parents and students.

“I’m very concerned about how families are going to respond and I don’t know why we’re putting them through this,” she said.

TORONTO — The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Jan. 28 2015, 10:11 PM EST
Last updated Thursday, Jan. 29 2015, 5:03 AM EST