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Cash strapped TDSB losing millions on underutilized schools

Last Updated Feb 27, 2020 at 6:25 am EDT

A classroom sits empty. UNSPLASH/Rubén Rodriguez

Around 50,000 desks that should be occupied by students are sitting empty at underutilized schools throughout Toronto, costing the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) millions of dollars a year as the province embarks on a review of a moratorium on school closures.

The latest enrollment numbers from this school year reveal that almost 20 per cent of TDSB schools are underutilized – a fact that has both TDSB director John Malloy and Education Minister Stephen Lecce saying change is necessary.

“We cannot continue the status quo,” Malloy told CityNews. “Obviously we have more school buildings than we need and that costs money.”

Under capacity schools have been a problem in Toronto for years due to declining enrollment and shifting demographics. But trustees have been reluctant to close them due to fears they may be needed again and because it is extremely unpopular with parents.

The former Liberal government put a moratorium on school closures in 2017 and the Ford government promised to keep it in place until a review of school closures is complete.

For now, the province’s hands are tied. But Education Minister Stephen Lecce says that could soon change.

Lecce confirmed with CityNews that a review will take place this year, after which underutilized schools could be shuttered.

“Look, there’s got to be a credible pathway to closing,” Lecce said.

A critical part of the review is to look at the impact school closures have on communities.

“I understand when you have occupancies of 20, 30 per cent that potentially may warrant that outcome,” Lecce said. “However the guidelines are flawed, we need to revise and reform them.“

But school closures can have a very different impact on rural communities versus urban ones. Lecce acknowledges a one-size-fits-all solution may not be the answer and says that’s one of the reasons consultation is critical.

The map below shows all the schools in the TDSB that are at 65 per cent capacity or less. Many of them are high schools — a startling 32 per cent of secondary schools are under capacity. But some TDSB schools are way over capacity, with one at 231 per cent.

(Click on the map to see your school’s capacity numbers. CityNews has not included alternative school because their numbers fluctuate widely from year to year.)

 

The five most underutilized schools:

  • Drewry Secondary School which is at 24 per cent capacity and;
  • Maplewood High School which is at 27 per cent. Both Drewry and Maplewood are for special needs students.
  • George Harvey — it can hold 1,557 students but only has 539 – putting it at 35 per cent capacity.
  • Central Etobicoke — was built for 378 students but has 134 with 35 per cent capacity.
  • Central Tech — it can hold 2868 students but has 1049 putting it at 37 per cent capacity.

 

TDSB to study overhaul of 100-year-old system

The TDSB is concerned students in underutilized secondary schools aren’t getting an equal education because they don’t get the same variety of course selection.

With that in mind, the board has launched a study that could overhaul and modernize the existing 100-year-old system.

Malloy hopes the results of the study will be made public by April.  He says it will redraw how we look at high schools in Toronto.

“It won’t get into ‘this school should stay open and this school should close'” he said. “But it will get into ‘in this community where we have four schools but we only need two’ and what programming should be in two.”

After that process is complete, school closures seem inevitable.

When asked if he’ll be facing some tough decisions, Malloy would only say: “I’m predicting change is hard.”

Sitting on valuable real estate

The TDSB may not be able to currently close schools, but it can sell property that has previously closed schools on it.

Currently, the cash-strapped TDSB owns 15 properties with closed schools, but only one is for sale.

No one from the TDSB could confirm the value of the properties but considering Toronto’s real estate market, it could be in the hundreds of millions.

When asked if the TDSB should be selling the properties, Lecce said: “From a principled perspective we should not be holding onto assets we don’t need … taxpayers should not be carrying the costs for materials for land that we may not need today or in the future.”

School closures aren’t always the sole solution. Some under-enrolled Toronto schools are sitting on large pieces of land worth tens of millions of dollars, and sections of that land could be sold while preserving the school.

Central Tech, for example, sits on a large and quite valuable piece of property near Bathurst and Bloor. The school is at 37 per cent capacity and has a lengthy critical repair backlog.

Would the North Toronto Collegiate Institute model work again? That school was crumbling so badly chunks of concrete were falling onto the ground. Several years ago, the TDSB sold less than an acre of its property to a developer who built two condos on the land, which in turn funded a new school on the property incorporating the original building.

Lecce is open to repeating the private/public partnership. “I think the model is effective,” he said. “It can work.”