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COMMUNITY COLUMNIST: Provincial plan on school closures needs to change

By Brent Towsley, special to the News

Most Hamiltonians are familiar with the issue of school closures. This topic has dominated the media and is having a profound impact on students, parents and the broader community.
As a secondary school student, I am concerned by these closures. Although my school is not slated to be closed, I still take notice of the problems these closures are creating for those in my community. In order for the community to properly discuss and debate this issue, I feel it is important to understand the root of the problem — that the primary cause is the flawed nature of the provincial funding formula.
The funding formula is used to allocate money to schools in Ontario at the elementary and secondary levels. It is plagued with a multitude of problems; these problems are unfortunately structural in nature, meaning that small tweaks to the system will not remedy the situation.
Perhaps the largest of these problems is that the funding formula is enrolment-driven — funds are allocated under the assumption that costs will reflect enrolment rates. The reality is often much different. Many aspects of a school’s overall operation do not depend on enrolment. These include costs associated with things such as hydro, libraries and maintenance. Enrolment figures are also known to fluctuate due to demographic changes within the communities surrounding schools.
To put it simply, the funding formula assumes that a board’s operating costs will decline in proportion to enrolment. But there are other problems besides the enrolment-driven mentality of the funding formula. Major funding gaps exist in regard to school operations and maintenance. By allowing the fixed funding per square foot for school operations to fall behind inflation, the provincial government has allowed the gap to widen. Very little funding is left for local priorities.
The largest gap appears to be for school operations. The province requires school boards to fund ongoing repairs and maintenance out of their operating budgets, while the province provides funding to build new schools. If the province was actually maintaining our current schools, there would be no need to build new schools.
While funding for education has indeed increased, most of that increase is required to implement new provincial program commitments and to cover other cost increases at the current-year inflation rate. While it is certainly important to take into account the economic impact of the school closures, an even more important reality is the impact on learning outcomes for students. Many students will have to be bused in to new schools, limiting their potential participation in after-school programs and tutoring opportunities. This can ultimately hinder their potential to succeed. Perhaps it is time to revamp the funding formula.
Brent Towsley is a St. Jean de Brebeuf student and an involved Hamilton Mountain community member.

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