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Tory wants a say in sale of Toronto school board schools

With a number of schools in Toronto being under enrolled, TDSB is looking at selling some of its properties. Leased to a Montessori school, the previous Bannockburn public school sits on 5 acres in a very affluent part of Toronto in the Avenue Rd. and Wilson Rd. area.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Mayor John Tory wants the city to be "meaningfully consulted" before any decisions are made about the sale of surplus schools by the Toronto District School Board.

In a two-page letter sent to board chair Shaun Chen on Monday, Mr. Tory is critical of what he describes as a "polarized" debate over the fate of Toronto schools, although he is careful not to lay blame.

"I am not sure the way it appears to be unfolding is leading to either a fully informed conversation or a good decision making environment," reads a draft of the letter obtained by The Globe and Mail.

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Mr. Tory says opinion appears to be split between those that never want a school sold, and those that want every property sold that does not meet provincial enrolment numbers. The most productive way forward, "lies somewhere in between," he writes.

The mayor's letter comes as the school board faces a provincially imposed deadline of Feb. 13 to say how it plans to reduce its underused space – defined as schools where students occupy 65 per cent or less of capacity. One in five TDSB schools fall within the threshold, says a report released last week by the Toronto board.

While the city has no formal say in the future of Toronto schools, Mr. Tory argues it should be involved in discussions because what happens to the properties will have a significant effect on the city, its services and its residents.

The letter also notes that under current rules the city must pay market price for any lands it might wish to keep as green space, even though those lands "are already in public ownership and paid for by the same taxpayers."

A subsidiary of the Toronto board, Toronto Lands Corp. is responsible for dealing with "surplus" properties. Under provincial regulations, Toronto Lands follows a two-step process to lease or sell a property, first offering it to other public-sector organizations, which have 90 days to submit a bid, and then selling it on the open market if there are no takers among other school boards, postsecondary institutions or municipal, provincial or federal governments.

Between 2008 and 2014, Toronto Lands generated $405-million from property sales.

Toronto Councillor Josh Matlow, a former school board trustee, said the city does not have money sitting at the ready to buy property when it is made available by the board.

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Mr. Matlow has been pushing in recent years for a forum that would bring trustees from all boards in the city and councillors together.

City council next week will vote on the latest effort, a proposal to invite all four Toronto-area boards to take part in an advisory committee to discuss common issues. As proposed by the city, the group would include six councillors and two trustees each from the TDSB and the Toronto Catholic District School Board as well as one trustee from each of the French boards.

In his letter to the TDSB chair, Mr. Tory does not discuss what form he would like consultations to take, stating only that he hopes the province and the TDSB "might identify ways in which we could be meaningfully consulted before these important decisions are finalized."

The letter lists several reasons enrolment numbers alone should not be used to decide the fate of local schools. Included in that list is the use of schools for other purposes, such as child care centres and recreation facilities.

Toronto residents must wonder, he writes, why the city and the school boards don't share resources more, including real estate.

"I would hope that in trying to secure a quick resolution we don't achieve it at the expense of considering all the implications," his letter states.

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With reports from Karen Howlett and Dakshana Bascaramurty

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