02/04/2015 01:47 EST | Updated 04/06/2015 05:59 EDT

TDSB to discuss possible school closures amid fierce criticism

The Toronto public school board will meet Wednesday night to review the progress made to date on developing a plan to implement 13 directives handed down by the province last month. 

Among the orders from Education Minister Liz Sandals was a directive to reduce the amount of underutilized space overseen by the board. In response, the TDSB identified 130 schools, including 84 of the board's elementary and junior high schools and 46 of its high schools, which could be targeted for closure due to falling enrolment. That amounts to about one-fifth of the board's 589 schools.

News of the possible closures has stoked fierce debate among board members, parents and other stakeholders. Critics of the plan argue that closing under-used schools fails to recognize the role of schools as community hubs and places where a variety of social services are provided by various levels of government. 

Similarly, many schools that are currently underutilized, which by the province's definition means they operate at below 65 per cent capacity, will likely fill up in the coming years as neighbourhoods develop around them.

In an interview on CBC's Metro Morning, Sandals said she isn't necessarily interested in being handed a list of schools set for closure by the board. 

"What we're really looking for is that they have a better plan than they have right now to manage their capital assets," she told host Matt Galloway. 

"I want to see a plan where money that is currently ending up being used for underutilized space maintenance goes back into programming for kids."

On Monday night, Mayor John Tory wrote a letter to Sandals and to the chair of the TSDB, Shaun Chen, asking that the city be "meaningfully consulted" on the potential school closures. 

"I don't think anybody's saying you never close a school, but I think what we are saying is let's just not treat this as a mere financial transaction. These schools are a central part of healthy communities," he said yesterday. 

Some TDSB trustees have been critical of the timeline handed down by Sandals, who has said the board must present a plan to her office by Feb. 13. 

"The timelines are very unreasonable and I think irresponsible," said Ward 5 trustee Howard Kaplan. 

But Sandals, herself a TDSB trustee before moving to provincial politics, says that just because the board "disposes" of a school doesn't mean it will go unused by the community. She points out that in the case that the board moves to close a school, the three other school systems in Toronto have first dibs on the space. 

"I hear all kinds of complaints from the other three school systems in Toronto that in fact they would love to acquire some of the underutilized schools that TDSB has," she said.

"So the fact that TSDB doesn't need the school anymore doesn't mean that the space won't be used as a school."