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Toronto Toronto board recommends selling four schools, reviewing 31 more

Donna Quan of the Toronto District School Board meets in Toronto, Ontario, Wednesday, January 28, 2015.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Canada's largest school board will need to spend $5-billion repairing its aging buildings by 2025 – money it must largely raise by selling surplus schools.

The Toronto District School Board is recommending that four elementary schools that are already closed be sold, according to documents released at a board meeting on Wednesday evening. Community consultations will be held before the board proceeds with the sale of the Bridgeport, Old Orchard, CB Parsons and Whitfield schools.

In addition, the board disclosed that trustees are reviewing 31 operating schools with low enrolment – a process that began with six of the sites in 2014. By 2016, the board will determine the most appropriate distribution of students across all 31 schools, many of which are in close proximity to one another. The board has not decided at this time whether to sell any of these schools.

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Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals has given the school board until Feb. 13 to come up with a three-year plan to reduce its underutilized space – defined as schools where students occupy 65 per cent or less of capacity. One in five schools – for a total of 130 – fall within the threshold, says a report the board released last week.

Trustees are under enormous pressure to meet the minister's deadline on a number of issues, including addressing the impact of declining enrolment on many schools.

"We have been working minute to minute, day to day over the past few weeks, TDSB chair Shaun Chen said at the meeting.

Mr. Chen said he plans to hold a roundtable discussion with the Education Minister, Toronto Mayor John Tory and officials from other school boards in Toronto before any schools are sold. Mr. Tory wrote to Mr. Chen this week, saying he wants to be consulted before sales occur.

The TDSB is being pressed to sell underutilized schools to raise funds for its capital backlog, which currently stands at $3-billion.

Most of the TDSB's 588 schools are at least 50 years old, and "unattended repairs" in many have led to an "exponentially rising backlog," says one of the reports released Wednesday.

The board needs to repair school exteriors, electrical systems and structural footings, the report says.

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But the report makes it clear that putting schools on the block is politically unpopular. "As urban intensification happens in many parts of the district, selling off school sites in a growing city is not a sustainable solution," it says.

The Toronto Lands Corp., a subsidiary of the school board, is responsible for selling properties once trustees declare them surplus. Toronto Lands is projected to raise $34-million in the 2014-15 school year from selling properties.

Trustees approved a plan last May to deal with underutilized schools, but it was not disclosed until Wednesday. The plan is by no means cast in stone, trustee Shelley Laskin said in an interview. The plan was based on trustees' best available information at the time, and is subject to annual review, she said.

Last year, trustees began reviewing low enrolment at six secondary schools – Nelson Boylen Collegiate Institute, Downsview Secondary School, Weston Collegiate Institute, Sir Robert Borden Business and Technical Institute, West Hill Collegiate Institute and Sir Wilfrid Laurier Collegiate Institute.

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