Here’s what you can do with an old school

TheStar.com – News/Parentcentral
April 6, 2010.  Louise Brown, EDUCATION REPORTER

John Weeks rolls his wheelchair up to the mike in the principal’s office and says “Hello” over the PA to fellow classmates in this program for people with intellectual disabilities.

Then, with a hint of mischief, he calls on Mayor David Miller to drop by — one of his favourite jokes these days.

Weeks is one of 60 adults whose programs moved last week from two grim strip malls to an airy new home in this former Scarborough school for the disabled on Ellesmere Rd. near McCowan Rd. The Toronto Association for Community Living bought half of the former Harold Lawson Public School this spring for $3 million from the Toronto District School Board, using money raised by selling other sites. The association has owned the other half of the school for decades.

“It’s the perfect hub to support people who want to spend up to 60 per cent of their time in the community; there’s even a big field where we can hold community barbecues,” raved chief executive officer Bruce Rivers.

It’s just one of the new uses being found for old schools closed by a board with too many properties and not enough cash. As the Toronto District School Board faces dozens of school closures in the coming years from falling enrolment, some have warned of a fire sale of public schools into private hands.

But old schools often just switch from one public body to another, notes Shirley Hoy, executive director of the Toronto Lands Corporation, the arm’s-length body created in 2008 to handle the board’s real estate holdings.

“People think we’re selling schools on the private market, but more often we’re negotiating with public partners for community use,” said Hoy, whose agency sold 16 properties last year for about $38 million. By law, Ontario school boards must offer old schools first to other school boards, then to a college or university, then another level of government, then a non-profit agency and finally then to the private market.

It’s a daunting task for a school board that already owns 97 empty schools, many rented to an eclectic array of tenants.

In the west end, 27 homeless mothers and their 53 children eat, sleep, and get help to reboot their lives in what was historic Hughes Public School until the TDSB closed it nearly 10 years ago. The board rented the vaulting three-storey building to Beatrice House women’s shelter, now run by the YWCA, on a 10-year lease for $130,000 a year.

Renovated to give each family its own bedroom and bathroom, the shelter is hailed as a success, but also faces its first rent hike in a decade as Hoy’s agency sharpens its pencil to negotiate true market value for its properties.

“This is a beautiful building; there’s a sense of spaciousness here that helps avoid the panic that can sometimes arise between women who have experienced violence,” said manager Alethia Lewis.

Downtown, the dancers of Ballet Creole rehearse their upcoming 20th anniversary show in what was once Old Orchard Junior School on Dovercourt Rd. near College St. The non-profit company of African and Caribbean-inspired dancers performs in almost 300 schools a year, but now faces its first rent increase in eight years — to $7,500 a month from $5,000 — which administrator Anna Di Costanzo says will be almost impossible.

“We love this location,” she said; “being nestled in a community rather than stuck out in some warehouse somewhere.”

While schools that close often are snapped up by other boards, they also can be recast as private schools and seniors’ centres, day cares and doctors’ offices. The old Carleton Village public school on Davenport near St. Clair Ave. W. is being turned into the Toronto Police Services’ new 11 Division.

“Schools were always located in the heart of a community, which makes them such great places to strike up connections with the neighbourhood,” said Roy Schuurhuis, co-supervisor of the new adult development program at Harold Lawson. It doesn’t hurt that they also usually come with airy windows and a gym, he notes, plus a sink in every classroom, a flagpole for early morning ceremonies — and a PA system.

Says Schuurhuis: “They become schools – with a twist.”

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$1M-$1.5M

How much the Toronto District School Board can expect to earn for each acre of land it sells.

FIVE

Appraisers the Toronto Lands Corporation hires; plus five real estate brokers.

NINE

Sites the TDSB declared surplus and up for sale in 2009-2010; four are vacant lots.

$11M

Roughly the amount the TDSB earns from leasing 49 sites each year, most of which gets poured back into maintenance.

$30M-$43M

Earnings from property sales the school board is hoping to realize this year.


What happens to schools that close

Shaw Public School: 180 Shaw St., closed in 2001; a heritage site, in the process of being sold to Artscape, the non-profit redevelopment group, to create an art community centre.

Boyne River Outdoor Centre: In Shelburne, closed in 2003; the Bruce Trail Conservancy wants to buy 100 of its 410 acres for conservation.

Franklin Horner. 432 Horner Ave., leased to Toronto’s Parks, Forestry and Recreation for years as a senior citizens’ centre; now the city has bought it.

840 Coxwell: A building linked to R.H. McGregor School, it’s rented to East York General Hospital for doctors’ offices.

James S. Bell School: 3495 Lakeshore Blvd. W., leased for years to city for a daycare centre; city has now bought it.

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