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The Toronto District School Boards offices in Toronto on April 20, 2018.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

The Toronto District School Board is under pressure. It’s got hundreds of crumbling buildings, and is selling century-old public assets to pay the bills.

Yet the board is ready to spend millions on parking for teachers and staff in downtown Toronto – parking that’s not needed, and not legally required, on a site next to a subway station. Why?

That’s the question being raised by City Councillor Ana Bailao. It’s a good one. The main school board in the city is selling itself for parts; so why is its parking policy not being scrutinized?

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Ms. Bailao represents the area at Bloor and Dufferin in west-central Toronto. Here, the TDSB has agreed to sell seven acres of public land. It will rebuild Bloor Collegiate Institute next door, including a garage for 36 spots, and hold on to parking lots that hold 24 more.

Ms. Bailao sees an inconsistency here. “We try to create all these programs about walking to school, biking to school, and then we [have] a school with 60 parking spots?” she says. “It doesn’t add up.”

No, it doesn’t. And it’s not clear why the board is making this choice. For one thing, school staff and teachers don’t even need the spots. The board hired a transportation consultant, WSP, to study the existing Bloor school. The report filed with the city found a “peak demand” of 37 cars.

From Toronto city planning’s point of view, “there are no parking requirements,” says the community planner in charge, Kirk Hatcher. It turns out that this is true for most of the schools in the old city of Toronto.

And the teachers’ union does not demand free parking. “There is not currently language in our collective agreement” regarding parking, says Leslie Wolfe, president of OSSTF Toronto. “It’s not something we have pursued in the past.”

This also means that teachers and staff don’t have parking as a taxable benefit. For them as individuals, it’s totally free.

That is a perfect incentive for people to drive to work; such policies generate more driving. Parking is a common blind spot among big employers and policy-makers, and it shouldn’t be. Even if Ontario’s current government is indifferent to climate change, our society shouldn’t subsidize car commutes or car storage. “Everyone’s talking about transit-oriented development,” Ms. Bailao says. “With this school being on the subway line, this would be a perfect example of trying to be more progressive with this policy.”

She’s right. But TDSB has a policy that, in essence, assumes that every teacher and permanent staff member will drive to work – and that public money should pay for their parking spots. “It’s important to note that while some staff may currently choose to take public transit, there is no way to predict how many will do so a few years or decades in the future,” TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said in a statement. “As a result, sufficient parking is required.”

“Required” because, apparently, the school board says so. This is an attitude straight out of 1960. The TDSB’s head of facilities, Steve Shaw, was not available for an interview.

The site at Bloor-Dufferin is complex and has a long history; there have been schools there for more than a century. The board is selling two and is, right now, tearing down the third – a massive 1966 high school – to create a new building for Bloor Collegiate.

That would include a garage of about 1,500 square metres, which will cost millions to build. I asked three experienced architects for their estimates; the consensus was $3-million.

In addition there are two surface parking lots on a side street that the TDSB intends to keep. These will be right next to the front door of the new Bloor school. They could be public space.

They also could serve a better purpose. The lots sit next to a facility of Safehaven Project for Community Living, which provides residential and respite care for children with complex-care needs. That organization would like to buy the parking lots. “For us, it’s really important to expand the facility we have there,” said Safehaven CEO Susan Bisaillon. “We’ve been trying for years” to negotiate with the school board, she says, “and they’ve been really reluctant to engage in dialogue.” The two sites would be worth millions at market value.

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It’s important to acknowledge the context here. Public education in Ontario is under attack. For 20 years, school buildings have been underfunded and undermaintained. Many students are learning in terrible conditions.

And, particularly in Toronto, a strong legacy of public places is being demolished or sold, sometimes for dubious reasons. The Toronto board is being pushed by the province to sell its property, never mind what the city’s neighbourhoods will need 20 years from now, and never mind that the proceeds generally don’t add up to much. This is a mess. It will prove to be bad policy.

But it’s a reality. Which is why the board and its sister agencies should change their approach to this issue, starting at Bloor. If public property is going to be up for sale, we should start with the parking lots.

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