School role as community hub threatened by new zoning, trustees argue

TheStar.com – News/Ontario/parentcentral.ca
May 31, 2010. Kristin Rushowy  EDUCATION REPORTER

Toronto trustees are furiously lobbying city hall for changes to a new zoning bylaw they say will prevent schools from becoming community hubs — just as a new report warns that better planning is needed between boards and municipalities if the idea is to ever take off.

And as school boards themselves shutter buildings at a rate not seen in a decade, with little city input, they may be closing off the chance to offer a range of services like recreational programs, seniors’ centres or even medical and dental offices in the spare space, says a report to be released Monday by advocacy group People for Education.

“Ontario’s schools could act as hubs in every community, but there is little funding or policy to support their broader use, or to coordinate planning between municipalities and school boards,” says the report, obtained by the Star.

Several expert panels, parents — even the province’s own early learning adviser — have called for the hub model as a way to support families and neighbourhoods seven days a week throughout the year, the report says.

But in Toronto, the city’s proposed harmonized zoning bylaw — which could be implemented by the fall — would prevent that, says Bruce Davis, chair of the Toronto District School Board. It has hired a planner to help it fight city hall and board staff have been appealing to staff there or about a year.

“We are the largest landowner in the city, apart from the city itself,” says Davis. “To rezone all of our property without our consent is a hostile act.

“. . . The harmonized zoning bylaw will kill community hubs.”

He says daycares would be allowed, but he’s not sure about parks and recreational programs. The board, he adds, has made its objections known and “we might have to go to the OMB” to force a change.

The new harmonized zoning bylaw standardizes practices across the former municipalities, which had different land-use categories, before they were amalgamated into the city of Toronto.

Councillor Norm Kelly (Ward 40-Scarborough-Agincourt), who chairs the city’s planning and growth committee, said staff have kept the zoning definition narrow for schools.

“Otherwise, if we said school sites can be used for educational uses and community hubs, well just imagine the uses — in some instances you might say ‘hey, that’s terrific,’ but other cases might say ‘hold on a sec.’ A purchaser could do whatever they wanted.”

He says it doesn’t rule out hubs, “but it just doesn’t leave the city and community open to anything and everything” as changes would have to go through a rezoning application, which involve community input. That process could take about six months to a year, he added.

Councillor Adam Vaughan (Ward 20-Trinity-Spadina), who is also a member of the planning committee, said the board has nothing to worry about, as he believes any public services, like public health or public dental services, would be permitted under the new bylaw.

“Ancillary uses, like daycares, are allowed under the bylaw, so it’s not as restrictive as they feared, but it’s also not spelled out as clearly as they’d like,” he says. He said he believes community use is included under ancillary uses, as long as education is the “dominant land use.”

Kelly said he believes schools already offering hub-style services would see them grandfathered.

The Toronto board’s plan is to establish what it calls “full-service schools” at 16 sites, with services to help students and their families. At the same time, it is looking to close at least nine schools in the coming year.

But without some kind of overarching direction or guidelines for all boards and municipalities, closing schools could rob the public of space that could be used by community groups or other government agencies, says Annie Kidder of People for Education.

Right now, 160 schools across the province are slated to close in the next year or so, the highest level seen since the Mike Harris Conservative government cutbacks in the late 1990s, the report says. This time around, however, the closings have more to do with declining enrolment, since the number of students determines most of the funding boards receive.

“There is not provincial mechanism to support mutual planning between municipalities and school boards, integrated services in schools or schools as community hubs. School boards . . . receive little or no funding to support developing schools buildings as hubs . . . and neither municipalities nor government-funded agencies are required to use space in schools.”

Principals laud the benefits of offering such supports to communities.

At Bendale Business and Technical Institute in Scarborough, the community garden grows produce that will be tended to by students in its horticulture program, and used by students in culinary arts to feed the school and community, says principal Cindy Zwicker-Reston.

Local senior citizens come once a month to the school. Nursing students talk to teens about sexuality and health issues. A police officer is stationed in their school and she plays sports with the kids and a leads a girls’ group.

The YWCA offers after-school fitness for girls, and the principal is hoping to get a local youth employment counselor on site. Students go to Humber once a week and earn a credit that counts at high school and college should they go.

“It’s very exciting to realize how many people want to work together in the community,” Zwicker-Reston added. “I’m optimistic it’s the way to be.”

Kidder said its vital that municipalities and school boards work together, adding: “It’s unbelievable that they don’t,” she said.

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