News Focus: Another school site declared surplus?

Yonge & Eglinton’s John Fisher P. S. is the most recent property to be considered for severance and sale by the TDSB

It’s the same story that has been heard time again in Toronto, and one that residents in the Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue area know all too well: the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has proposed to sell off a piece of land in order pay for the rehabilitation of an aging, rundown school building. This time, it’s a portion of John Fisher Public School that could be on the chopping block.

Faced with a multibillion-dollar maintenance and repair backlog, the cash-strapped TDSB is currently downsizing its 588 properties in order to get out of the red. But many residents in park-deficient areas of Toronto are not eager to give up part of their school’s playground.

In January 2016, shortly after the proposal for a 32-storey condo next door to the school was approved at an Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) settlement hearing, Ward 13 trustee Gerri Gershon informed parents that the TDSB was considering declaring 0.5 acres of land at the John Fisher Public School surplus.

Local resident Sogol Shams said many residents were baffled by the news.

Shams cited a lack of transparency on the board’s part and said the letter that alerted residents to the meeting made no mention of the TDSB’s intent to declare part of the school site surplus.

Ben Daube, president of the Sherwood Park Residents’ Association, also said many residents had advocated to incorporate the school into the new development. However, despite their hopes, a plan never arose.

Built in 1887, John Fisher Public School is the oldest elementary school in the TDSB and, according to Gershon, is in need of repair.

“The systems are getting old, and they’re going to have to be replaced, and it’s going to be very costly. We’re presently doing some work now on it because there was flooding in the basement,” Gershon said.

Shams, whose son attends John Fisher Public School, said residents were originally told at the community meeting in January that there was a strong likelihood the City of Toronto would purchase part of the property for a park. But after a few questions from parents, Shams said it became apparent that it was unlikely that the city would be able to afford to pay more than a few million dollars for it.

Although Shams said many residents would prefer the city to purchase the land to preserve it as green space, she admitted the area isn’t all that green to begin with.

“It’s kind of brown space now. That’s another thing we’ve been waiting for, like turf or something, but it’s just a big mud pile in the back. The school needs a lot of attention,” she said.

Gershon said she shares residents’ concerns.

“Everybody feels that it’s important that we have green space in that area,” she said.

Ryan Bird, spokesperson for the TDSB said the current strategy of selling off surplus properties is, “one of the very few ways that [the TDSB] has to raise money.”

Ward 11 trustee Shelley Laskin noted, “it’s not a sustainable strategy, nor will it make a dent [in the backlog].”

“What we’ve tended to use it for is not to address the backlog issues, or the capital repairs, but for growth,” she added.

In 2005, Yonge and Eglinton was identified as a “growth area” in the provincial government’s 2005 Places to Grow Act. As a result, a number of schools in the area have had property severed and declared surplus.

In 2003, the TDSB sold 0.7 acres of land at North Toronto Collegiate Institute to the developer Tridel and the $23 million price tag enabled the board to pay for a new state-of-the-art facility. South of that near Yonge Street and Davisville Avenue, the TDSB recently planned to sell 0.98 acres of land at Davisville Public School to help pay for its much-needed facelift. Instead, it was announced in late 2015 that the province would step in and pledge $14.7 million to completely rebuild it.

These are two instances where the severance and sale of land actually garnered community support.

Unfortunately, this is not the case in other areas. In the Avenue Road and Lawrence Avenue West neighbourhood, a battle has waged between the TDSB and residents over the severance and sale of 2.13 acres of land at Bannockburn School. The space in question is a thoroughly used sports field in an otherwise park-deficient area. As such, residents banded together to fight the sale — the outcome of which is still unknown.

Laskin said that although she acknowledges that many residents view their school sites as a public asset, “The board has to do what the board has to do.

“Frankly, the board isn’t responsible for green space and parks and recreation. That’s the city,” she added. “The city pays us zero dollars for that space as the community park.”