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TDSB land deal to turn Pantry Park into playground irks Beaches residents

Local residents Loredana Cunti (right) and John Kay discuss the future Pantry Park, in Toronto's Beach neighbourhood on Thursday April 30 2015.The Park is threatened with closure to the public during the day to allow Kew Beach Public school (pictured in the rear) to increase the size of its existing playground. Council will vote on the proposal that during school hours it belongs to the public school and during evening hours it reverts to public use.

Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

A small patch of land in Toronto's tony Beaches neighbourhood has become a bitter battleground in the war over school funding.

A complicated land deal would turn Pantry Park, a quiet 1.5 hectares adjacent to an elementary school, into a playground. Neighbours felt blindsided when they learned of it, accusing the Toronto District School Board of making backroom deals and depriving them of a public park for part of the day.

There is an irony to the problems facing the TDSB: Some Toronto schools are so underutilized that they've been slated for closing, while others like Kew Beach Junior Public School are so overcrowded that playgrounds are packed and increasingly dangerous for energetic youngsters, a situation made worse by the addition of portables. The board, seeking green space for the school, approached the City of Toronto.

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In fact, Torontonians should get used to more improvised fixes – such as a privately funded sports dome at Central Technical School – as the troubled TDSB seeks extra space and money outside the province's formal funding system.

The provincial funding rules leave the Toronto board, whose schools are too empty on average, barred from most expansion funding.

The board can adjust its finances by closing underused schools and selling off properties over the next few years. The province says outside-the-box solutions shouldn't be necessary.Kew Beach is the latest school to disagree. It is operating at 123-per-cent capacity, like many in the Beaches area, by the shores of Lake Ontario.

Elan Mastai, whose daughter Beatrix goes to the school, is among those in favour of a deal that would grant the school exclusive access to city-owned Pantry Park during school hours to give students more space to play. Beatrix, 6, slammed face-first into the icy pavement this winter after colliding with an older boy chasing a ball. Headaches and dizziness from the head injury kept her home from school for two days.

"It wasn't really anybody's fault," Mr. Mastai said. "It's like the games almost all overlap on each other. It's a safety issue."

Principal Sarah Nauman said student injuries have become commonplace. The school's 120 kindergartners aren't allowed outside at lunchtime for fear they'll be knocked over by bigger children.

The Pantry Park negotiations started last spring, stopped for the city election, then resumed in January. Word leaked out to residents in April. City council will vote this week on entering formal talks over the park lease, which would keep the park open to the public on evenings and weekends, and forbid the school from building on it.

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At a public meeting last week in the school's gym – the first and only one planned over the proposed park deal – city staffer Ryan Glenn pleaded that the city's decisions around the deal are being made under duress. Since the mid-1990s, the TDSB has had the right to use or sell part of another Beaches green space – Woodbine Park. The board suddenly threatened to sell off that Woodbine land, but said it was willing to make a deal: If the city gave Kew Beach school exclusive daytime access to Pantry Park, the board would give up its rights to Woodbine Park. In exchange for the value of the Woodbine Park rights, which weren't time-limited, the proposed Pantry Park lease would last 999 years.

For the city, the priority is holding on to its green spaces, Mr. Glenn said. Had the TDSB sold its portion of Woodbine Park, he said, the land would have gone to the French public board to build a new school.

That was little comfort to people who use Pantry Park, which has a track and is popular for after-school soccer club practice. Loredana Cunti, whose daughter is a close friend of Beatrix Mastai's, is fighting the deal. The school already uses Pantry Park every day and should keep doing so without a formal lease, she said. She worries that her older child won't be able to keep playing soccer there.

"I think everybody should be able to use the park," she said. "This is my backyard."

The school's growth, and possible solutions to it, haven't been laid out in a formal expansion plan. When asked why, local school board trustee Sheila Cary-Meagher said it would have no purpose. "The province won't give us any money," she said.

Like all boards in Ontario, the TDSB is permitted to submit eight proposals per year for building projects – long odds for any school in a board with nearly 600 of them. The Ministry of Education has never received a capital funding request for Kew Beach, said spokeswoman Nilani Logeswaran. However, the school is eligible for two studies that could help solve its space problems, including a boundary change review which could send some students to nearby schools.

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"There are other schools nearby that have excess space and are operating below capacity," she said. Duke of Connaught and Bowmore schools, both on the other side of Kingston Road from Kew Beach, were operating at around 80-per-cent capacity last year. However, Ms. Cary-Meagher said she can't plan on any extra capacity at either school now that they have added extra programming to attract students.

Facing an onslaught of angry e-mails over the Pantry Park plan, Ward 32 Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon said there was no legal obligation to consult the public over the deal, though she is now asking for feedback. She said the TDSB is "under the gun.

"We've just got to get into the mentality and state of mind of sharing," she said.

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