Good places to learn
Renewing Ontario's schools
In December 2003, the Ministry of Education asked Ontario school boards to honour a school-closing moratorium to permit an integrated review of facility needs. In May 2004, boards were given a year's notice of the government's plans to create a large renewal fund for the following school year. An independent inspection of all school properties was also finalized last year and, in the fall, the ministry advised boards it was developing a new comprehensive approach to school facilities for the future.
Results of the Facilities Review
The review has made it clear that the state of Ontario's school buildings is getting in the way of the instruction being delivered within them, justifying an overhaul in the relevant parts of the provincial education funding formula. Specifically, the review found:
- In too many parts of the province, capital costs are driving program decisions for students, even though those costs represent a relatively small share of overall education spending
- Ontario has an opportunity to improve education programs at relatively little cost due to the availability of a significant amount of space
- Many Ontario schools need repair and cannot be fixed under the current funding formula
- The current funding formula has significant inefficiencies that include paying for space that is not yet built
- There have been a record number of school closures, and the current guidelines for school closures do not meet all of the obligations boards and the province have to students, parents and the community.
Response to the Review - Good Places to Learn
Good Places to Learn is a considered 18-month action plan to address the deficiencies found through the facilities review. In all, the Ministry of Education intends to invest $280 million in annual increases, phased in quickly over the next three years to fund an estimated $4 billion in new school repairs and new schools. The plan sets out policy direction and goals to achieve a high standard for the environment in which students learn, together with the resources and flexibility to make that standard achievable across the province. The following specific components are part of the Good Places to Learn plan.
Facilities Planning Driven by Student Needs
Ontario school boards will be asked to revise their building, expansion, repair and replacement plans to incorporate several new program improvements for students. These include:
- Cap on class sizes of 20 for students in JK to Grade 3
- New programs for 16- and 17-year-olds to keep them from dropping out
- Early learning and child care spaces through our Best Start plan
- Expansion of education-related not-for profit programs
- Plans under the proposed Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act
- School Safety Audit implications.
Rapid Upgrades to the Condition of All Facilities
Boards would be provided with $75 million in funding to support $1 billion in initial major repairs to begin this summer. A second phase, allocating a further $75 million for $1 billion in school renewal, and $50 million for $700 million - to build 120 new schools across the province to replace old ones - would be made once boards have completed capital plans in October. In addition, the ministry will increase annual funding by $80 million as required over the next three years to support an estimated $1.2 billion in additions and buildings to meet the space needs for new programs identified in capital plans.
New Guidelines for School Closing Procedures by Boards
Debates and disputes about school closures can be highly emotional. The past decade has seen a disproportionate number of charged discussions as schools were closed at an accelerated rate, reflecting both demographics and the outcome of misplaced government policies. Under the previous government, a record number of schools - over 650 - some of which were closed because of incentives in the funding formula that encouraged boards to close schools just to build new ones.
In all cases, the ministry believes students would benefit from a more transparent process for determining the value of each individual school. This "school valuation" follows practise in other jurisdictions. It quantifies considerations around a particular school and the trade-offs necessary to make sound decisions that can be appreciated by the wider community.
The guidelines will require boards to develop their own school valuation tool that assigns actual weighting to each of four sets of considerations about the school:
- Its value to the student
- Its value to the community
- Its value to the school system
- Its value to the local economy.
New school closing guidelines will make the school valuation the centre of board and community discussions. Highlights of the proposed guidelines include:
- Mandatory public notice of one year before a school is closed
- Several opportunities for public input with wide notice to the community
- A task force would be appointed, headed by a trustee, with broad membership to hold public meetings, solicit feedback and gain community consensus
- Boards would be responsible for tracking student retention and performance for students from closed schools.
Building Better Value
The ministry is proposing major changes to existing processes to ensure adequate and equitable funding, efficient use of existing space, efficient and economical planning, design and construction of schools and cost effective maintenance and repair of schools.
Specifically, the ministry will institute new rules for capital funding requiring integrated capital plans before any major commitments are made. The ministry will also ensure sufficient support for existing capital debt financing for all schools and additions that are completed or underway.
A new board/government task force will confirm the most effective school capital financing mechanism going forward. Options will include financing by the province, school board consortia, such as the existing school financing consortium, or a new joint body. Savings will be determined once decisions are finalized.
An inter-board project team will be established to assist in developing bulk bidding/purchasing by boards that are not already part of appropriate regional and provincial consortia for major repair contracts. A public report will have to be completed at the conclusion of the planning and the execution of both phases of renewal and new school buildings and additions.
Open and Transparent Decision-Making
Good decisions about school buildings and grounds can only be made with a long-term outlook. School board capital plans should serve as a comprehensive and sustainable forecast for our schools and our communities.
To ensure more accurate demographic projections, more opportunity for public engagement and more consideration for education and community trends, boards will now be required to set and maintain rolling five-year capital plans as a condition of ministry facilities funding. The first of these rolling capital plans is due in October 2005.
Capital plans will be focused on the needs of students, schools and their communities. The ministry has outlined a new, 10-step capital planning process which includes active engagement with the community, realistic consideration of enrolment trends and the inclusion of program objectives, e.g. results of school safety audits and the provisions of the proposed Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.