Opinion

School Closures, Sprawl, and the Broken Funding Formula

The provincial school funding formula arbitrarily discriminates against smaller urban schools and promotes large suburban warehouse schools, which encourages sprawl and urban disinvestment.

By Craig Hermanson
Published June 07, 2007

My understanding of the issue of school funding, school closure and new school building is based on five years of school council involvement, including three as a council chair/co-chair and one round of Area Accommodation Review (AKA School Closure).

I'm not an expert, but experience has been thrust on me by virtue of having children in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB).

Simply put, urban schools are being closed to pay for sprawl schools. More completely, this is a demographics issue which is made worse by urban sprawl and a poor school Funding Formula.

I list demographics first as a primary factor is changing family size: Established schools have to draw on larger areas for the same number of students. However, this is also a problem made worse by poor urban planning, which encourages people to move to the suburbs.

The result is that enrolment at schools in older established areas is down while enrollment at suburban schools is bursting at the seems.

The Funding Formula is Broken

The provincial school Funding Formula necessitates combining and closing partially filled schools in order to fund building of new schools. School boards are funded by the province, which allocates funding based on the number of Full Time Equivalent (FTE) students.

The provincial funding formula (which the provincial Liberal government promised to revise but hasn't) dictates how many students each school can hold.

The problem with the funding formula is that it is based on square footage of the building and is geared towards newer buildings, not 90+ old schools with wide hallways and large classrooms.

Calculations for older schools usually result in an impossible to accommodate number of students. This is why you often see portables at older schools as these are not counted in the funding formula.

To make funding matters worse, each primary classroom size is capped, further reducing the realistic pupil populations below that calculated by the formula.

The HWDSB is deemed to have an excess of space according to the funding formula and thus has to combine and close schools to reduce their space surplus so they can build new schools in high need suburban areas. This, of course, just leads to more sprawl and people moving to the suburbs and a brand new school.

Breaking the Cycle

The city can help break this cycle by establishing better planning and encouraging infill and alternative housing (i.e. purpose built retirement or student housing) in established neigbourhoods with under utilised schools. Denser student populations would encourage the school board to maintain, renew or rebuild older schools, instead of deeming them surplus.

The province can help out immensely, by fixing the broken funding formula that automatically makes an older school a financial burden, even if each classroom is full.

Finally, the HWDSB can realize that they can make their own accommodation situation worse or better, depending on where they build or renew schools.

The city of Hamilton and the HWDSB are starting to work together, thanks in large part to the efforts of Ward 1 Councillor Brian McHattie, but both council and the board need to see they can effect change and revitalisation of neighbourhoods.

It's too easy to simply and wrong to say, "we're following the market." Together, they help to make the market.

Craig Hermanson is the president of Concrescence Design and the editor of LockeStreet.com. He lives in Kirkendall Neighbourhood and is involved in community development.

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