Schools are where we educate our children, and as such, they are at the heart of our communities. Their value extends beyond the classroom – beyond the children and families that they serve – to residents of all ages, interests and life stages.

Parents talk about schools as one of the few places where people regularly see each other, share stories, offer help and support when times are hard, and learn from one another. Teachers talk about the creative and interactive opportunities they provide for students to learn, grow and develop their skills. Neighbours and business owners talk about the value of a school to the local economy, as an anchor for families and a sustainable workforce.

The education system has experienced declines in the school-aged population for more than a decade – a challenge that school boards and communities have continued to address over the years through difficult conversations about school consolidations. In some small towns and villages, the school is the last remaining public building. But under-enrolled schools can limit student opportunities, including course options and student supports.

That is why it is so important that when a school may have to close, school boards, communities and municipalities need to work together to understand the balance of these considerations.

It is also why the Province is reaching out to rural and remote communities across Ontario to have this important conversation about their schools. We need to ensure that school buildings are considered in a way that acknowledges their value to students and to small communities, and the relationship between the two.

We understand how strongly Ontarians value living in rural Ontario, and we remain committed to ensuring that all students have access to an excellent education. This document is intended to guide a discussion on that commitment, including the changes that may be needed and how to make those changes in a way that best supports our students, schools and communities.

Supporting the sustainable use of school space in rural communities

The Ontario government is committed to ensuring that schools serve local communities to the greatest extent possible, and that community impacts are considered when school boards make decisions about pupil accommodation. That commitment includes students, who deserve the best possible education experience.

There can be tension between these considerations, where school boards and communities must manage the impacts of a steady decline in the school-age population. Many schools now have low enrolment, which may make it difficult to provide a breadth of quality education and experiential learning opportunities for students.

Many school boards have addressed this challenge successfully through partnerships, collaboration and efficiencies. However, others continue to face challenges.

This section is intended to discuss some of the strategies which are currently in place to support sustainable school space in rural communities. In addition, this section will consider other possible ways that the province, municipalities, and communities can work together to address these challenges.

Community hubs and schools

One strategy available to school boards to sustainably manage school space involves bringing a tenant or partner into a school or a portion of a school, on a cost-recovery basis. School boards across the province have partners in their schools, such as child care providers, early years centres, special education, mental health and well-being services, public libraries, seniors’ programs, recreational facilities, health services and employment and training supports, to name a few.

To support and encourage these kinds of arrangements, the Ministry of Education introduced the Community Planning and Partnerships Guideline, which was revised in 2015. It requires school boards to hold at least one public meeting per year to discuss potential planning and partnership opportunities with public and community organizations. School boards are expected to notify municipal government, community partners and the general public about the annual meeting. Municipal governments and community partners are expected to participate to foster collaboration and understanding.

The sharing of planning information between school boards and other community partners is a central requirement of this revised guideline. School boards are expected to share enrolment data, their capital plans and facility partnership opportunities. Similarly, municipalities are invited to share information, including population projections, growth plans, community needs, land use and green space requirements.

Decision-makers at the local level, including municipalities and school boards, are well-positioned to recognize the need for a community hub and to start moving ahead. In looking at how best to harness the potential community hub benefits, however, these decision-makers may often come up against challenges. These include the cost of creating the right space for a range of uses, security and traffic concerns, the differing planning timelines and budget cycles of potential partners, and addressing the question of who would ultimately be responsible for managing the facility and paying the ongoing operating and capital costs of the space.

The Province is working to help local communities overcome these challenges through its Community Hubs initiative:

  • The Ministry of Education announced $50 million in November 2016 towards retrofitting available school space for community use and making it more accessible to partners.
  • When a school that housed community partners is closed or sold, capital funding may now be available for replacement space in new facilities.
  • The Ministry of Education has made converting closed schools into hubs easier by providing more time for potential community partners to place an offer before the school is placed on the open market, and more partners, including Indigenous organizations, are now eligible.
  • Consideration is also being given to making up the difference if a board sells a surplus school at less than fair market value, where there is a provincial interest to enable a viable hub.
  • The Ministry of Municipal Affairs hosted forums across the province and continue to research to bring together the right partners to plan effectively.
  • The Ministry of Infrastructure’s new Community Hubs Division is working to implement the recommendations of the Community Hubs in Ontario: A Strategic Framework and Action Plan.

While these measures have led to many successful partnerships, we have heard that these processes and engagement could be improved.

Let’s talk:

  1. What steps can the provincial government, municipal governments, and community partners take to better support early and collaborative community planning to make the most of all public resources, including schools?
  2. Where the will exists for community partnerships, what are the hurdles to effectively implement, and how can governments, school boards and partners work to overcome them?

Having school boards share space

Another strategy to ensure space is sustainably used is to encourage collaboration between Ontario’s four school systems. In some cases, collaboration to create a school facility shared by more than one school board, also known as a “joint-use” school, can result in a school staying in a community and, with a larger total enrolment, being able to offer better facilities, programming and other opportunities.

Since 2013, the Ministry of Education has reviewed these joint proposals on a priority basis in the annual capital funding process. In October 2016, it also committed seed funding towards the development of joint-use proposals and tools to encourage more sharing.

Going forward, the Ministry of Education will review all capital proposals for new schools, additions or consolidation projects to ensure joint-use opportunities between school boards have been fully explored before funding is granted.

At present, fewer than 40 of the 4,900 schools in Ontario are shared by more than one school board. Especially in rural and remote areas, boards in the same area should be more fully exploring the idea of joint facilities to benefit both students and communities.

As a part of this conversation, we are interested in how these opportunities could be more fully explored, and how communities and school boards can come together to explore shared use of space between two or more school boards.

Let’s talk:

  1. What are the opportunities for school boards to share space in your area? What do you see as the obstacles?
  2. What should the provincial government and school boards be doing to ensure that opportunities to co-operate are supported?

Supporting decision-making around school closures

In some cases, despite the strategies above, school boards may find it necessary to consider the closure or consolidation of a school, because consolidated schools can give students a fuller and richer range of programs and services, particularly at the secondary level. It also saves the costs of heating, lighting and maintaining aging facilities, funds that can be reinvested into front-line education.

Nonetheless, school closures and consolidations are among the hardest decisions that school boards in rural and remote areas must make. There may be more ways to balance the needs of students with the needs of the community. There may be new ways of mitigating the impacts of these decisions on students and families, such as different approaches to student transportation.

Where a school closure or consolidation is under consideration, the Ministry of Education requires school boards to follow a process set out in the Pupil Accommodation Review Guideline (PARG) before making a decision. This helps to ensure consistency across school boards. The guideline requires, at a minimum:

Step 1:
An initial staff report, including specific enrolment, program and accommodation issues, with a recommendation on how to proceed, is presented to the Board of Trustees.
Step 2:
The Board of Trustees authorizes a pupil accommodation review based on the staff report and its recommendation.
Step 3:
An Accommodation Review Committee (ARC) is established, including parent/guardian representatives from the school(s) under review.
Step 4:
A community consultation process is undertaken, including public meetings and required consultation with impacted municipal governments and community partners.
Step 5:
A final staff report and recommendation are provided to the Board of Trustees. The staff final report must include community feedback.
Step 6:
The public provides comments directly to the Board of Trustees through public delegations.
Step 7:
A final decision is made by the Board of Trustees.
Step 8:
A transition process is outlined for any school consolidation or closure and the relocation of students.

We recognize that these conversations are never easy, and communication between local leaders has been challenging in some cases.

Going forward, we would like to consider how community impacts can meaningfully inform the pupil accommodation review process. We are committed to working with municipalities and school boards to explore how the provincial government can best support this type of analysis in the future, including potentially in the initial staff report.

Let’s talk:

  1. How can the Province best support a meaningful conversation about the impact of schools on local communities and student well-being through the pupil accommodation review process?
  2. How can the Province ensure that the feedback from the community is given full consideration, and that this input is reflected in the review process?

Supporting quality education in rural communities

The Ministry of Education and Ontario’s school boards have worked together to craft a system of support for achievement and well-being that is designed to ensure equitable access to quality education across the province, no matter where a student lives. However, in rural communities where schools tend to be smaller, providing a broad range of quality learning opportunities can be challenging.

In addition to examining ways to sustainably use school space, exploring innovative approaches to support learning in rural and remote communities is crucial, such as through exploring new approaches to digital education and experiential learning. We are committed to working with communities and school boards to explore options to support a rich learning experience in rural schools.

In some cases, this may require adjustments to the education funding formula, known as the Grants for Student Needs (GSN). Through the funding formula, the Province recognizes the unique needs of students, schools and school boards. At the same time, the Province understands the need to seek out and incorporate feedback on how provincial supports work. Every year changes are made to the way funding works, sometimes by investing more money and sometimes by improving the way the money is targeted at specific priorities.

The current funding formula uses a variety of measures to support students in rural, remote and northern communities. For example, we provide increased levels of support for teachers, principals, vice-principals, special education funding and administrative supports, based on factors that recognize increased student needs, and the higher cost of delivering these in rural, remote and northern communities.

However, as with all aspects of the formula, the supports for rural, remote and northern boards can benefit from open and frank discussion.

Let’s talk:

  1. What is working well now to help students in small and rural communities have a positive learning experience and quality education? What could be improved?
  2. How could the Province best recognize and address the unique funding needs of your region and community through the funding formula?

How are Ontario’s schools funded?

The largest factor in Ontario’s education funding formula is enrolment, because it’s the number of students that drives the need for teachers, classrooms and other educational supports.However, the funding formula also provides additional supports to account for the varying costs associated with running schools in different parts of the province, especially those in more rural and remote areas.

These supports account for approximately one third of all funding, and are the reason that Ontario’s government is investing more in rural schools than ever before. Since 2013, annual funding for rural boards has increased by nearly $200 million. Boards in rural and remote areas currently get extra funding – about $1,200 more per student than urban boards. This recognizes the challenges of serving students in schools that are distant from bigger cities, widely spread out and smaller than elsewhere in Ontario, and the higher costs of professional and other services and supplies. We have also built 60 new schools, 250 additions, and 140 major retrofits in rural Ontario since 2003.

Funding supports that particularly aim to help rural and remote schools and their boards include:

  • The School Foundation Grant, which provides funding for principals, vice-principals, office support staff and office supplies, recognizes that remote schools require a higher level of funding support than other schools.
  • The School Operations and Renewal Grant, which supports the costs of operating, maintaining and repairing school facilities, recognizes that remote schools require additional funding to maintain underutilized space.
  • The Geographic Circumstances Grant, which provides higher levels of teacher staffing support for remote schools and provides additional funding to recognize the additional costs in small, disperse and remote boards.
  • The Differentiated Special Education Needs Amount of the Special Education Grant, which recognizes the need for higher levels of funding for small, disperse and remote boards.

In conclusion

Looking forward to the future, our government is committed to continuing to invest in and support students, rural schools, and communities. It is the responsibility of everyone involved in the delivery of education and building strong communities to come together around the common goal of ensuring that students are receiving a high quality education.

While the government has taken steps to put the focus on students, classrooms, and communities, there have also been challenges along the way. It must be acknowledged that in many parts of rural Ontario, communities have raised concerns that their needs are not always fully considered. The dialogue we are opening now is intended to help us address those challenges, and to ensure that Ontario continues to be one of the best places in the world to live.

The good news is that the opportunities for fulfilling and exceeding this goal have never been greater. With creative thinking, open conversation, and a willingness to explore new solutions, there is no doubt that our students will continue to thrive in a globally competitive world – no matter who they are or where they grow up.

Additional reading

A user-friendly guide to the Grants for Student Needs (PDF)

Case studies on school consolidations

The Community Planning and Partnerships Guideline (PDF)

The Pupil Accommodation Review Guideline (PDF)

Guide to Pupil Accommodation Reviews

Pupil Accommodation Reviews

Community Hubs in Ontario: A Strategic Framework and Action Plan

Enabling and Celebrating Community Hubs: One-Year Progress Update on Community Hubs in Ontario: A Strategic Framework and Action Plan, August 2016

Build On: 2017 Infrastructure Update, Ministry of Infrastructure