Susana Gonzalez Ossa says her son’s school was great, just too far from home.
Queen Alexandra Middle School is several kilometres from the condo her family rents on Toronto’s waterfront, beyond several major roads she didn’t feel safe letting him cross on his own. Many of his classmates lived in other areas. Her children are learning at home now, but the time it took her before the pandemic to do the school run by Uber and foot made it harder to volunteer, pick up freelance work or get more education herself.
“It’s definitely affected us in terms of what I can contribute to the school … and how connected my son feels between our neighbourhood and the school,” she said.
That’s the reality for many in Toronto’s fast-growing condo areas, where there aren’t enough schools for the number of children already there. Before the pandemic, nearly 600 students were being bused from the central waterfront to schools outside the area, according to school board numbers. An unknown additional number were being taken to schools by their parents.
The long-term plan for the central waterfront envisions another 76,000 people living there, requiring as many as 10 new schools. They remain aspirational for now, though, mired in a jurisdictional disconnect: Toronto can direct where development happens, and has identified spots for two new schools to serve incoming residents, but these facilities have to be requested formally by the school board and approved for funding by the province.
Condo purchase contracts on the waterfront typically specify that space in a local school may not be available, and some developments post this warning on their hoardings, but would-be renters aren’t necessarily aware. And residents who move in during one stage of life may find themselves marrying and starting families, only to be confronted with a lack of schools that hadn’t before seemed an urgent issue.
“I didn’t have kids when I first moved [to the area] and now I have two kids,” said Anson Kwok, vice-president of sales and marketing at Pinnacle International, which has two towers under construction at the base of Yonge Street.
“It’s just a part of the reality of working downtown and young couples anticipating that they will down the road have kids. Schools are a pretty important part of that puzzle.”
In fact, the city wants families to move to these areas. The official goal is to create communities for singles, couples and people with children. And with planning policies protecting much of the city from additional density, while channelling heavy development into a small number of areas, there are few other options for families priced out of Toronto’s frothy market for houses.
A similar dynamic has been happening in midtown, where schools are struggling to deal with a booming condo population. Local councillor Josh Matlow says he can’t support a major project at Yonge and Eglinton unless a school is built at the same time.
“It’s only reasonable to be able to expect that everyone should be able to send their kid to school in the neighbourhood,” he said.
On the central waterfront there is currently just one school – and it is full. The city has earmarked two sites in the area for schools, a plot of land in the West Don Lands and a space to be included in a building at Lake Shore Boulevard and Jarvis Street. Both require provincial money to become schools.
“The pressure will mount for other uses to come onto that site,” said Toronto chief planner Gregg Lintern, talking about the spot set aside in the West Don Lands. “You really have to make it a top priority item.”
He said, though, that he would be loath to make school funding a condition of green-lighting a building. This could give the province a de facto veto on developments, the approval of which is legally under the purview of the city.
Asked about funding for these sites, the province said the school board hadn’t requested it. The Toronto District School Board acknowledges this, but notes that all boards, regardless of size, can submit only 10 capital requests at a time, typically once a year. The TDSB is the biggest in the province, with nearly 600 schools.
“The opportunity to identify only 10 projects limits the board’s ability to rank emerging pressures like new schools along the waterfront higher than existing pressures at schools with multiple portables on-site,” spokesman Ryan Bird said in an e-mail.
Only three of Toronto’s 10 most recent funding requests were approved, increasing overall school board capacity by 23 classrooms worth of space. The next window for capital funding applications is expected to open within months and, if this happens, would allow the board to make a formal request for new waterfront schools.
In the meantime, the city has also begun petitioning the province directly on school funding, so far without success.
“If we want to keep families downtown, if we want to ensure it remains liveable, then you need the social infrastructure so that parents aren’t leaving to find the schools,” said local councillor Joe Cressy, whose ward includes the central waterfront.
Mr. Lintern sent a letter to the province in January seeking an update on the status and timing of provincial funding for waterfront schools. The city’s planning committee voted earlier this month to make a similar entreaty to Queen’s Park.
A spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce said it was up to the school board to make a funding request.
“We will absolutely consider proposals to better support families living in vertical communities and near the waterfront,” Caitlin Clark wrote in an e-mail. “They deserve the same access to learning as families across the GTA.”
As the neighbourhood waits, Paolo Auciello is feeling pushed out.
He moved into the Distillery District in downtown Toronto nine years ago and, when his eldest child started junior kindergarten last year, the school board arranged busing and a pick-up spot for the boy. But Mr. Auciello said that the bus would be late or not show up a few days a week, forcing the family to drive him to school.
Now, with his son in senior kindergarten and two children in daycare, the family of five is thinking about moving. It’s partly that they feel squished in their condo. But it’s also the feeling the broader waterfront area is being short-changed.
“If they had a school here where my son didn’t have to cross [major streets] just to get to school you wouldn’t need the bus,” Mr. Auciello said. “I’m tired of being treated like it’s a tourist destination and not a place that I’m living in and raising kids in. I’m being forced out.”
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