Repurposing schools

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial
Published On Thu Jun 03 2010

At a time of declining enrollments, converting some of Toronto’s half-empty schools into community hubs — offering services that go well beyond education — is an obvious way to repurpose valuable resources. That’s why the public board is testing the model at 16 schools.

But before the plan can go forward, city hall is creating obstacles as it goes about harmonizing old bylaws (from Toronto’s pre-amalgamation days). Now, the risk is that bureaucratic restrictions could box those schools into their traditional uses. This is a missed opportunity for both the school board and the city, shortchanging the very communities they are supposed to serve.

It’s also a frustrating example of how two separate groups of elected officials and unelected bureaucrats are operating in silos instead of talking to each other. City hall thinks that declining enrollment is the school board’s problem. Instead of considering the potential synergies, councilors and planners took the path of least resistance. They stuck with traditionally restrictive zoning that forces schools to file lengthy and expensive rezoning applications for additional uses such as health facilities.

The school board, for its part, appears to have dropped the ball by failing to anticipate these obstacles, blithely assuming it could count on flexible zoning when it should have known that city hall was bogged down with a case of tunnel vision.

As for the province, it has provided funding for hubs in poor neighborhoods, but failed to exercise the leadership that would move the idea beyond the conceptual stage. Ontario now lags behind other provinces in supporting integrated services in schools, according to a report this week by the advocacy group People for Education.

With rapidly declining enrolment, the future of neighborhood schools is a pressing issue. If the bylaw is passed as expected this summer, the city and board need to sit down together to find a way to accommodate community hubs. Without co-ordinated action, underutilized schools will never be repurposed for the neighbourhoods that need them most. And unused properties will simply be sold off to private developers. It’s not too late to act.

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