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Lyra Evans, who was elected as a school trustee in Ottawa, on Oct. 23, 2018. Ms. Evans, chair of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, says trustees know their local communities.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government is targeting school lands in his next bid to boost the province’s housing stock under wide-ranging legislation that puts his administration – not locally elected trustees – in charge of deciding which properties can be sold and developed.

Bill 98 empowers the government to direct a school board to sell an entire unused school site, portions of it or other board-owned property if it determines that land is not needed to meet current or future student accommodation needs for the next 10 years.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the bill gives him an “overarching lens” of what school assets are available to use for the next generation, including the thousands of people immigrating to Canada and settling in Ontario every year.

“I think that macro lens is missing,” Mr. Lecce said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “We’ve never had an overseer of a 60-plus billion-dollar asset base.”

The legislation compels the province’s 72 boards to provide the government with an inventory of schools that are not being used for learning and are leased out, administration buildings and empty parcels of land. The government decides whether to sell a property to another school board or use it for a provincial priority, such as a nursing home or housing, before putting it up for sale on the open market.

In interviews with The Globe, trustees across the province said they are alarmed by the bill. By granting the government unlimited authority to set priorities for the public education system, they say, it further diminishes their role as stewards of school properties.

“There certainly was no consultation with school boards on the appropriate use of our property,” said Cathy Abraham, a trustee and president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, which represents 46 boards across the province. “We believe that this legislation takes away that ability for us to reflect the needs of our communities. It’s like a chipping away of our autonomy.”

The Ford government is going places no one anticipated it would venture, all in the name of addressing the province’s urgent need for new housing. It is allowing development on 3,000 hectares of the Greenbelt, breaking a promise to permanently protect farmland, forests and wetlands around the Greater Toronto Area. It is also using an unprecedented number of minister’s zoning orders to allow property developers to bypass local planning processes.

School lands are the next frontier.

The government pegs the combined asset value of Ontario’s 4,600 operating schools at $64-billion. Most of the properties remain off limits to development or sale under a long-standing moratorium on closing schools. The former Liberal government suspended further closings in 2017, after complaints from parents, especially in rural and northern communities where boards are grappling with declining enrolment. Mr. Ford’s Progressive Conservatives have no immediate plans to lift the moratorium. Only school properties declared surplus prior to the ban on closings can be sold or developed under Bill 98.

Trustees know their local communities, making them more capable than a centralized government of planning for future growth, said Lyra Evans, chair of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.

“To start carving up public assets and selling them to private companies to turn them into housing or even long-term care, I think does a disservice to future generations,” she said.

School boards look well beyond a 14-year cycle for students – from junior kindergarten to Grade 12 – when projecting how much classroom space they need. They worry that the government could have a shorter planning horizon.

Ms. Evans cites the example of the Cambridge Street Community Public School in Ottawa’s LeBreton Flats neighbourhood, which is using less than a third of its space with just 80 students. The Ottawa-Carleton board’s projections show that enrolment is expected to climb significantly at the elementary school once young families move into new housing units under construction in the area.

“There’s going to be a number of years where that school is going to look ludicrously underutilized,” Ms. Evans said. But it would be a mistake to sell the school, she said, because its proximity to downtown Ottawa is attracting urban dwellers who enjoy the area’s mix of residential and commercial spaces.

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An apartment building construction site in the Lebreton Flats neighbourhood of Ottawa, on June 29. The Ottawa-Carleton board’s projections show that enrolment is expected to climb significantly at the Cambridge Street Community Public School once young families move into new housing units under construction in the area.Spencer Colby/The Globe and Mail

During two days of public hearings into Bill 98 in May, Toronto District School Board chair Rachel Chernos Lin told lawmakers how demographic change affects trustees’ decisions. Her board is reopening Bannockburn Public School in September to address significant growth in its North Toronto neighbourhood. The school had closed in 1981 because of declining enrolment, and the board has been leasing the building to a Montessori school.

School boards don’t always get it right when making their forecasts. In 2004, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board sold the former Scott Park Secondary School for $650,000 because of declining enrolment, only to expropriate the property from a developer nine years later.

For his part, Mr. Lecce said he needs the legal authority contained in Bill 98 to direct school boards on a range of priorities.

“It’s for me a bizarre reality that so little centralized power exists in the ministry,” he told The Globe. “So much of the power has been devolved to school boards.”

Ontario is not alone in taking decision-making out of the hands of local officials. In fact, two provinces have abolished school boards altogether. Nova Scotia dissolved its seven English-language boards and eliminated the role of trustees in 2018.

Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec used its majority in 2020 to invoke closure on a contentious bill that scrapped all school boards in the province and replaced them with “service centres.”

New Brunswick was the first province to eliminate school boards in 1996 only to reverse course by restoring a version of an elected body after public pressure. Manitoba also unveiled plans in 2021 to eliminate trustees but backed down after public outcry.

In Ontario, successive governments have marginalized the role of trustees. In the late 1990s, Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservative government merged 129 school boards into 72, cut the number of trustees by nearly one-third and capped their pay at $5,000 a year. Trustees now earn between $7,500 and $29,500.

The Harris government also removed the ability of school boards to generate their own capital funds for new schools by taxing homes and businesses. Under the current regime, each school board can submit up to five capital projects a year. The government has approved nearly 200 school construction projects since 2018.

Lori-Ann Pizzolato, chair of the Thames Valley District School Board, said the government has approved funding for two of the 11 new schools needed in London, Ontario’s fastest-growing city. But getting approval takes too long, she said.

The board applied for funding to build the Summerside Public School in 2015 and got the go-ahead in 2018. The elementary school built for 553 students was overflowing the day it opened in September, 2022, with a dozen portables and enrolment capped at 800. Other children in the southeast London neighbourhood – a hub for newcomers to Canada and migration from larger cities – were bused to another school.

Until 2018, overall enrolment in the Thames Valley board was declining and it was closing schools. Since then, the population has grown rapidly.

“Now, we can’t even keep up,” Ms. Pizzolato said.

The board’s higher enrolment makes it eligible for the first time to collect what are known as education development charges (EDCs) from home builders to fund land costs for new schools. The playing field in Ontario is far from level, however.

Under provincial legislation, boards are eligible to collect EDCs if the total number of students enrolled in its schools exceeds the capacity in its overall elementary or secondary system. Twenty-seven boards have such bylaws in place.

The Toronto District School Board – the largest in Canada with 235,000 students – is not eligible. That’s because 27 per cent of its schools use 65 per cent or less of their capacity, according to a Globe tally. The Toronto Catholic District School Board, by contrast, has sufficient pupils, allowing it to collect such fees to accommodate growth and has been doing so since 2019.

Bill 98 passed its final reading in June, but the government has yet to release regulations detailing how it will control school land sales.

Mr. Lecce said the legislation will speed up building new schools. The government plans to work with real estate experts – Infrastructure Ontario, the agency that manages the province’s major public-sector building projects, and private sector property developers.

“Coupled with the government’s commitment to build 1.5 million homes over the next 10 years, it’s more important than ever that we get this right and that we maximize the use of our space and our tax dollars,” Mr. Lecce said.

Ms. Chernos Lin, the chair of the Toronto board, said in an interview that she does not think Bill 98 is about schools. “I suspect it has to do with building housing.”

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