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School board takes zoning battle with city to court

Exterior photos of Central Technical School (LEFT) and it's closed playing field in Toronto on May 21 2014.

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Toronto District School Board is taking a battle with the City of Toronto to court so that the board can allow a private company to operate a controversial recreational facility at one of its high schools.

The TDSB selected Razor Management last spring to build a seasonal domed stadium at Central Technical School, near Bathurst and Harbord Streets. But since then, it has been met with resistance from the community and then denied its application by the city, which found that the sports facility, located in a residential area, did not comply with zoning regulations. It didn't qualify for an exemption under city bylaws, either.

The TDSB is not backing down, arguing that a similar facility at Monarch Park Collegiate, near Coxwell and Danforth Avenues, was given the go-ahead a few years ago. A hearing has been scheduled for Tuesday at the Ontario Superior Court, and could be key in determining what controls the city has over developments on TDSB-owned land. A favourable outcome for the TDSB could heighten community concerns of privately operated domes popping up on public school properties.

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The idea of the TDSB entering into a private deal, where a company maintains and operates the field, raises questions about whether the board will try such a partnership at other schools, which could lead to limited access to school grounds for local residents before and after school, and during the summer. The TDSB is looking to open a handful of championship fields at other schools.

If the TDSB is successful in its court challenge, it would enter a 21-year lease agreement with Razor to create a facility for soccer, football and other field sports at Central Tech. A dome would cover the sports field and track during the winter. Although Central Tech students would have use of the facility on weekdays during the school year, Razor would have exclusive use during the evening hours and all day on weekends.

In the summer, except for a requirement that 5 per cent of the time be provided free to community groups, the other 95 per cent would be under the control of Razor. Further, all proceeds from private rentals, sponsorships, merchandising, advertising or food and beverage sales, would go to Razor and the company is not required to consult about its use of the facility with the school board.

In her arguments filed in court, City of Toronto lawyer Kirsten Franz argued that there is no requirement for Razor to provide subsidies or reduced fees for community groups, or even charge permit fees similar to what the TDSB charges for use of its school facilities.

Ms. Franz stated in her submission that school boards can only qualify for zoning exemptions if the use of the lands is "only for teaching or instructional purposes." Without this requirement, "the TDSB would be free to build anything on its lands, or use the lands and buildings for any purpose," she stated.

TDSB spokeswoman Shari Schwartz-Maltz argued that students would be using the facility, accompanied by teachers, for physical education classes and sporting events. As it stands now, the field has issues with contaminated soil and Ms. Schwartz-Maltz said the TDSB does not have the money required to clean it up.

"We believe in the project and we believe it will enhance the experience for our students and allow them an opportunity to have a facility that we never would be able to construct ourselves without some private capital," she said in an interview Wednesday.

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But Rory (Gus) Sinclair, acting chair of the Harbord Village Residents' Association, which is opposing the proposed inflatable dome at Central Tech, said he is concerned that the community would have reduced access to the field and more traffic congestion. "If there is a new plan that addresses the parking issues and community access, we might get a deal. But they [TDSB] have refused," Mr. Sinclair said.

The owner of Razor, however, said that much of the opposition is a result of misinformation.

Matthew Raizenne explained that the track at Monarch Park is free for the community to use when the dome is not in place. He is also required to provide 5 per cent of the time at no charge.Mr. Raizenne rejected any notion that he has received an overly favourable business arrangement with the TDSB.

"If it was too good, why do I have 12 schools across Canada calling me and asking how do they get one of these facilities," he said.

Shannon Kari is a freelance writer.

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Education Reporter

Caroline Alphonso is an education reporter for The Globe and Mail. More

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