The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) has a problem: a number of schools in the urban core are reaching capacity. This is being exacerbated by all-day Kindergarten, scheduled to be phased in by 2014, that is creating even more pressure for classroom space. For months, working groups set up by the OCDSB have been working behind the scenes, tasked with coming up with suggestions for how to accommodate the anticipated crowding. Their suggestions were presented in reports released in mid-November, including by the task force covering the Glebe, Old Ottawa South and Centretown in the middle of the city (http://www.ocdsb.ca/sch/as/Pages/CentretownGlebeOldOttawa.aspx).
That report created a brief stir, since it contained the unexpected suggestion that First Avenue and Mutchmor schools, which are only blocks apart in the Glebe, switch places, with a new 11-classroom addition added to Mutchmor to accommodate the sharply increasing population in the early French immersion program now at First Avenue. The School Board will have an interesting time with this, since they did not envision the working groups proposing new expenditures, while the working group insists that there was no other option.
At the same time, other schools inside the Greenbelt are reaching capacity. For example, Devonshire Community School in Hintonburg, another French immersion school, may have to evict the after-school care program that has leased space in the school for decades, since they are essentially at capacity already and need to make room for the increased Kindergarten space.
Predictable, you might say, given the increasing emphasis for more than a decade on increasing the population in the urban core through intensification and infill, and limiting urban sprawl. Apparently not predictable, though, by the OCDSB planning staff. What do Devonshire and Mutchmor have in common? They were repeatedly targeted for closure in the not-too-distant past, justified by school board predictions of a sharply declining population of school-aged kids in the core.
Let’s look back about 8 years. The year 2003 saw the release of the School Board planning document Student Accommodation: 2004 and Beyond (apparently not available online). The future seen by the Board? They predicted a decline of just over 2% per year in school-aged children in the “central” sub-area—a prediction that school board staff vigorously defended at the time. Yet, the City of Ottawa at the same time was instead predicting an increase of a bit more than 0.5% annually, expecting its intensification policies to bear fruit. Statistics Canada? They were similarly measuring just about 1% per year increase in school-aged kids at the time of the report. Yet, school board staff predicted major decreases and were convinced schools needed to be closed. Now here we are, less than a decade later, and these same schools that were deemed completely “surplus” then seem instead to be vital to accommodating the increased population of urban kids.
Planning predictions often carry considerable political baggage. One difference possibly underlying the disparate projections was that the provincial government at the time had instituted a funding formula that required 100% occupancy board-wide before new schools could be built (even in expanding suburbs). In addition, the amalgamation of school boards not too long before the closures were proposed had resulted in a majority of school board planners from the old suburban board. Many of these planners, according to school activists in the core, believed kids belonged in the suburbs, not the inner city. On the other hand, the City was simultaneously implementing intensification and wanted more dense zoning, facilitating population increases in the urban core.
What can we conclude? That purportedly hard data that are routinely put forward to justify various policies, especially when they are future predictions, may often not have much behind them other than wishful thinking and political expediency. The OCDSB is lucky that parents in the core were organized enough (several times) to fight off most of the proposed closures. If they had not, and school board staff recommendations had prevailed, where now would they be putting all these kids?
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