A North York school playing field has become another battleground for the Toronto District School Board and the City of Toronto.
The two-acre plot of green space outside Bannockburn School, near Avenue Road and Highway 401, is often used by the public for league sports and casual play, and is part of five acres of land leased to the Montessori school by the TDSB. In May, the city's North York committee of adjustment denied the TDSB's application to sever the property into two lots and put the field up for sale – a decision the TDSB is now appealing to the Ontario Municipal Board.
Earlier this summer, the school board lost to the city at the Ontario Superior Court over the TDSB's plan to allow a private firm to erect a dome over the field at Central Tech. The TDSB is also appealing that decision to the Ontario Divisional Court.
The TDSB has run into difficulties severing its lands in the past, faced with angry community members. However the board, which faces a $3-billion maintenance backlog, has few options for raising the money it needs.
The province has kept a close eye on the board's budget, following concerns about construction projects that went over budget and issues of oversight. Last June, after the province imposed a funding freeze, the TDSB approved a three-year capital plan to sever and sell four school playgrounds in addition to selling six closed school sites. Of those, two school sites – Appian and Regent Park/Duke of York – have been sold, generating about $32-million, and three land severances are in the works, including Bannockburn.
The field at Don Mills Middle School was also declared surplus last June by the TDSB, but residents rallied to keep the green space, and in May, a city committee opted to postpone plans for an arena on the field until 2015. The TDSB has since withdrawn that severance application. Also in May, three citizen members of the committee of adjustment rejected the TDSB's application to sever the Bannockburn property at a hearing with a strong community presence, along with the ward's councillor, Karen Stintz, and MPP Mike Colle. Prior to the meeting, around 800 local residents signed a petition to keep the field.
Community members, who began rallying last October to have the field rezoned as park space, are gearing up to challenge the school board on the OMB appeal. "In their books, the field is considered surplus, but in our community, it's widely used. It's fenced in, so it provides a safe environment for kids to play," said Alyssa Berenstein, convener of the Armour Heights Baseball League, which uses the field three nights a week.
Ms. Stintz, who is running for mayor, wants to strike a partnership with school boards and investors to allow playing fields to operate after school hours. "If the school board is taking it to the OMB, then they're not interested in working on a longer term solution," she said. "It doesn't make sense to have public agencies fighting each other at the OMB to keep park space."
However, Howard Goodman, TDSB trustee for North York, said that while selling land is not a solution favoured by trustees, it is necessary in order to build classrooms in areas of need, given provincial funding constraints based on enrolment.
"The province takes a ruler, places it against the declining slope, and keeps drawing it down," said Mr. Goodman, who is not seeking re-election after 11 years as trustee. "What we're saying is, student population is cyclical, and so we may be in declining enrolment right now, but we'll be increasing enrolment in five years."
"None of us wants to sell land. We all think the [infrastructure funding] is a really short-sighted policy from the province," Mr. Goodman said. "There's a huge amount of investment that needs to be made to keep buildings current, especially with changing needs."
Revenue generated by selling surplus property goes toward building new classrooms as well as infrastructure maintenance, he said.
To co-ordinate the school and community's legal representation at the OMB, Bannockburn School has retained Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt on a pro-bono basis. "If they sever the property without a plan to keep it as green space, that's our biggest concern – that it will be sold to a developer, that the land will be lost," said Meg Kahnert, head of the school. If the field were to be severed, she said, she hopes it will be sold to the city and kept as green space.
The city sent a letter expressing interest in the field but did not put in a formal offer within the 90-day time frame. The Toronto District Catholic School Board has submitted an offer to purchase the field, but has recently expressed interest in buying the whole site. They are waiting to hear back from the TDSB on their offer.
Daryl Sage, CEO of the Toronto Lands Corporation, the agency tasked with selling surplus TDSB property, said city planning did not object to their original application to sever the land and that the TDSB "satisfied the conditions" put in front of them.