Their students may have disappeared, but many old schools across Ontario could get a second life as "community hubs" under a series of proposals presented to the province this week.
In Toronto, where one in five public schools is at risk of closure, the recommendations would immediately transform the sale process if they are adopted. Premier Kathleen Wynne solicited recommendations in March on how to smooth the way for community hubs, appointing Karen Pitre to head an advisory group, and she received Ms. Pitre's report a few days before it was released this morning.
In the long term, the report says, the province needs to cut down on red tape if it wants to preserve public buildings, making space-sharing easier for organizations like health clinics, daycares, seniors' centres and even cafes.
Until then, Ms. Pitre's report recommends an emergency interim measure that prolong school sales, giving public bodies and non-profits 180 days instead of 90 to come up with proposals for each surplus property before it goes on the open market. It would also allow buyers to pay less than fair market value in some cases, with the province making up the difference to the school boards.
Public property is scarce, especially in quickly-densifying urban areas like Toronto, and the working group heard countless times that it would be a mistake to sell off any of it without thinking it through, said Ms. Pitre.
"We want to make sure there is what I call the sober second thought," she said.
Though birth rates have declined, the working group heard that other public services will face a space crunch, including long-term care facilities.
"We'd be crazy not to have done a full review of what is the public interest," she said. "To sell off all of your property and then say, 'Oh, but now we need to buy back all the property because we need long-term care,' just because the demographics have changed, seems very short-sighted."
Empty schools aren't only a pressing issue in Toronto, where the Toronto District School Board has been under immense pressure from the province to consolidate schools and sell underused property, often incurring the wrath of neighbourhoods that don't want to lose the land and its green space.
Ms. Pitre's report comes at the 11th hour for tiny Ryde Township near the Muskoka town of Bracebridge. A two-room school building has been used there for 15 years as a co-op, with volunteers teaching cooking classes, children's programs, tai chi and countless other programs. Seniors attend a fitness program run by the Victorian Order of Nurses, and a mobile health clinic was set to arrive this fall, giving local residents access to a nurse practitioner.
The former school is the only public building in the town, said co-op chair Jennie Nice. The group had been renting it for $1 a year, but the local school board announced in May it needed to sell the property, and that provincial rules force it to sell only at its six-figure fair market value. The Town of Bracebridge and local residents combined can't afford the price, but last week the school board granted the co-op 10 more days to make an offer.
"I think if they could sell it to us for a dollar, they would sell it to us for a dollar," said Ms. Nice.
The school was built in 1962 when a local family, wanting a school nearby, "carved a piece out of their farm," she said. "So there's a very strong emotional attachment to that."
Similar ad-hoc community centres already exist all over the province, said Ms. Pitre. She said she purposely avoided defining what should qualify as a hub. "What people need locally is what a community hub is," she said. "It can be anything you want it to be."
In her interim model, the province would waive the fair market value rule in proposals deemed viable and in the public interest, and it would set an appropriate price, finding a way to offset the difference with "a revenue tool or through a provincial funding mechanism," according to the report.
The system shouldn't and won't save every school, she said. However, under the current surplus sale process, other public entities often don't even know a building is up for sale until the 90-day window has passed, she said. Another long-term proposal is to create a central list for surplus realty.
A new system could also allow the province to formally recognize all the other current uses of TDSB schools, such as daycares and pediatric clinics, and to factor them into capacity calculations, said TDSB trustee Pamela Gough. That could change which schools are considered underused and up for sale in the first place. Several TDSB pupil accommodation reviews, which look at the distribution of students across a cluster of schools, are underway but are still months, at least, from any closure decisions.
"A lot of it really, quite frankly, depends on how much money the province is going to pony up and how it affects the province's capacity rating on these buildings," said Ms. Gough.
There's no doubt to city planners that space-sharing works, and not only because it's an efficient use of land, said municipal planner Ann-Marie Nasr. It's hard to put a value on maintaining services and public space in walkable distance, she said.
"If you're going to the library and then you see the recreation program that's happening in a facility, you're more likely to opt in and participate," she said.
"We sort of see the school facilities as offering breathing spaces for communities and opportunities to be able to expand and grow and change."