This past Wednesday, the Public School Board voted to recommend the closure of the three remaining high schools in the lower city’s core – Sir John A MacDonald, Delta and Parkview. This decision will create a “education desert, leaving a 10-kilometre stretch of downtown without a high school, between Westdale and Sir Winston Churchill. Many others are still at risk, with the board planning to shutter 30 schools in an attempt to grapple with the Province’s notorious Funding Formula. In place of these three schools and others, like Scott Park, they’ve already closed, they’ll be building a massive “superschool” to accommodate thousands of inner-city students.

At the core of the matter, of course, is the provincial “funding formula”, implemented under Mike Harris. This formula dictates funding based on calculations of enrolment, and prevents boards from building new schools until old ones are closed. Even with “adjustments” made since under McGuinty, this model chronically under-funds boards, as described by “No Time for Complacency“, a report by the Centre for Policy Alternatives. It allocates funds based on what the Province thinks they should cost, rather than evidence from functioning schools. At last count, Ontario ranked 48th out of 64 districts in North Amercia in terms of funding – New York City (not known for well-funded public schools) spends about double per student what Toronto does. Beyond this, the focus these policies have put on fundraising at the school level has led to a huge imbalance between rich and poor neighbourhoods.

This decision, along with lists of past and proposed closures show a picture of an utterly divided city. Those hardest hit are among the poorest inner-city neighbourhoods, as well as more working-class parts of the Mountain. Particularly impacted are schools with large immigrant populations (Sir John A MacDonald) and special-needs programs (Parkview). Even in the West End, the board reccommended Prince Philip for closure, over more affluent George R. Allan or Dalewood. Those less affected, as always, are those in the whiter, wealthier suburban parts of town.

School closures damage the very fabric of communities. When neighbourhood schools go, so do the networks of families they connect, the walkable streetscapes and much of the neighbourhood’s identity. In response, families stop buying homes nearby, and enrolment drops at remaining schools. Like roadwork, service or the way bylaws are enforced, this is a lot less about schools than it is about class.

The cycle of neglect and under-funding which afflicts poorer parts of Hamilton has had devastating results. Over the past few decades there’s been an exodus of businesses, institutions and any families who could afford to leave, thoroughly subsidized by the City’s suburbabn building schemes. As neighbourhoods grew poorer, this “urban blight” only prompted others to write them off as hopelessly polluted and impoverished. The decline in political influence and public/private funding which comes along with this exodus only made things worse. These neighbourhoods became a place to further cut costs, to concentrate social services other areas didn’t want, to dump toxic waste or speculate on cheap properties. All of these factors, drove the cycle to new depths.

While downtown “decayed”, Hamilton eagerly focused on a decades-long suburban building spree. Not only did this require enormous public subsidies ($10-20 thousand per home on top of development charges), but it created ultra-low-density neighbourhoods which could barely support their own services and infrastructure. The price of extending services to these areas has fallen on older, poorer and more dense parts of the city in the form of higher taxes (area rating, etc), decreased political representation (roughly twice the population:councillor in poorer wards) and a constant flight of public and private funding. The combination of cheap land and public subsidies led many employers to flee as well, from IBM (formerly in Stelco Tower) to the recent decision to move the School Board headquarters themselves out into suburbia. Retail employment, of course, never does well when all the wealthiest customers leave, and it’s hard to tell the story of declining downtown shopping districts (King, Ottawa, Concession, Barton etc) without also mentioning the rise of Limeridge Mall and Meadowlands.

As money and influence left the North End of the city, the problems became increasingly distant from decision-makers. Instead of being included in discussions, these areas became victims of paternalistic and opportunistic attempts to “fix” or “revitalize” them from above (both figuratively and literally). Since the first “urban renewal” plans in the 1950s and 60s to the giant rubble fields recently cleared at the West Harbour, a long list of developments have demolished homes and torn apart neighbourhoods in the hopes of somehow bringing “life” back into the core. The fact that Sir John A and the current School Board headquarters are now being evacuated is more than a little ironic, as these are exactly the same forces which built them over the former downtown streetscape.

The political, social and economic divisions in our city have made this all possible. Authorities could never ignore the plight of some of the city’s most populated if it weren’t for the way class shapes political representation, both at City Hall and in news outlets like the Spectator. The situation with schools and other services won’t get better until this division is honestly acknowledged.

Politicians can pretend if they like that this isn’t about favouring wealthy wards or development firms, but as long as they avoid these questions, every policy they push will be blatantly biased. There is no “equality” between areas like Ancaster and the North End, and ignoring the obvious differences will only entrench the problem.

These closures are an insult and offence to ten straight kilometres of communities who have already suffered for far too long. They will only going to worsen the grim economic situation already facing inner-city families and youth. They’re a wake-up call for all of us. If we, as communities, don’t start fighting back, we’re going to see a lot more of them.

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