The TDSB recently announced that approximately 60 schools are being evaluated with the possibility of selling, closing or changing their district boundaries. Liz Sandals, the Minister of Education released a statement requesting a capital plan summarizing a course of action for these schools over the coming 7 years.
This isn’t anything new for the TDSB. Since 1998 they have closed 30 schools and sold 19 of those properties. We’ve seen developers snap up those properties and build great infill projects on those sites. The challenge with the prospect of closing more schools and subsequently selling some of these sites is that it is short-sighted (in our opinion).
There has been a major push to increase density in the downtown core in the past decade. We’ve seen a paradigm shift where people are not moving out into the suburbs to raise families. With increasing commuting times and a lack of investment into public transportation, we’re seeing more people living closer to the downtown core. Unwilling to make the commute out of the city, this younger demographic seem willing to raise their families in smaller spaces. Although this isn’t translating into an immediate increase in enrolment in downtown schools, there undoubtedly will be a shift in enrolment in the next 5-10 years. Closing schools in the short term will only present problems in the future when we experience the opposite effects.
Schools become social centres for a community. Their presence downtown has a myriad of health benefits as neighbourhood residents use the fields and gyms for activities outside of normal school hours. Studies show that urban schools encourage physical activity and decrease childhood obesity as children walk to and from school. Social programs use the classrooms and gymnasiums to educate, support and engage with community members. All of these benefits can’t be ignored when considering the impact of closing schools.
In the short term, the TDSB may want to consider options to generate income from these under utilized buildings. Leasing out unused space, running additional programs for a small fee and severing pieces of the land to be sold to developers are all ways of generating income for the school board without losing these schools and the valuable land they occupy.
Public/Private partnerships are a phenomenal way to benefit all parties. Tridel Developments worked with North Toronto Collegiate and built a new sports field and school as part of their Section 37 donation to the City of Toronto. In return, a portion of the school’s land was sold to the developer who then sold and built a condo project. The school and neighbourhood residents benefit, as does the developer. Mutually beneficial projects like this should be actively sought!
The prospect of short term financial gain is definitely enticing but the long-term pain of trying to assemble increasingly expensive land will present an even more daunting problem. Community meetings and consultation with neighbourhood residents can spark new ideas and ways we can keep these schools and generate money to refurbish those that need maintenance.