The challenge of urban density: They can see the school from their balconies but their kids can’t attend
|Toronto Star 02 Mar 2018 at 19:54|
When the recess bell rings at McKee Public School in Willowdale, residents gazing out the windows of the highrise condominiums across the street are privy to a scene of joyful pandemonium.
Hundreds of children spill from the main building and four portables, spreading across the schoolyard in an explosion of pent-up energy. From above, they are colourful specks, laughing, shouting, chasing, climbing and sprawling in the snow.
But parents in the 120-unit building west of the playground can’t cast a surreptitious eye on what their own children are up to. Because since the condos opened in 2004, children who live them haven’t been eligible to attend the school steps away from their front door.
Like other elementary schools along the Yonge St. corridor near Sheppard Ave., McKee is full to the brim, thanks to a population boom in the area. With almost 800 students, it has doubled in size over the last decade and is now at more than 110 per cent capacity.
So instead of a three-minute walk each morning, public school students from 8 McKee Ave. and several other nearby buildings have to climb onto a yellow school bus for the trek to Lillian Street Public School, more than three kilometres away.
“We have become recipients of unintended consequences from the urban density,” says Vivian Leong, who can see the school from her balcony but can’t count on her 9-month-old son Ethan being able to attend by the time he’s in kindergarten.
“We are so close to the school, it’s really ridiculous. It is baffling how planning and policy are made.”
So many people are clamouring for spots at the school, which has impressive EQAO scores and a diverse multilingual population that includes many newcomer families, that staff conduct regular “enrolment audits” asking for proof of addresses. It has resulted in the departure of about two dozen students in the last three years, says principal Jeanette Lang.
The situation is one example of problems plaguing areas of the city targeted as high-density zones. Those include spots further south in the central corridor such as Yonge and Eglinton, as well as the western downtown core and more recently Leslieville.
While cranes and bulldozers erect homes for thousands of new residents, key infrastructure and amenities to meet the needs of these expanding communities — including schools, parks and transit — lag far behind.
Realtors carry on marketing their dwellings based on proximity to desirable schools. But builders are forced to stipulate on signs and in purchase contracts that children won’t be guaranteed a spot in those classrooms.
“We’re really feeling the squeeze,” says Melody Nguyen, member of the parent council at Elkhorn Public School near Bayview and Sheppard, which is 20 per cent over capacity. Elkhorn has five portables and has to hold assemblies in two shifts because it can’t fit all its students in its small gymnasium.
Condos are springing up south and east of that school, “and I have no clue where these kids are going to be going to school,” says Nguyen, who has children in Grades 2 and 1 and third starting at Elkhorn next fall.
Local school trustee Alexander Brown says such haphazard planning means “as long as there’s a continued interest in living in the area, we could be piecing this together for a long time.”
Overcrowding is one of the major issues he deals with as the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) trustee for the area. And he stresses the implications ripple far beyond the classroom — whether it’s lack of space for extracurriculars, or the lost sense of community.
At McKee, staff and students use every inch of space. A technology lab overlooking the library was divided to create an additional classroom. Windowless storage rooms have been converted into colourful spaces with air filters and fans where English as a second language teachers work with individuals or small groups.
An addition was built four years ago, then four portables were added which now house the eldest students, in Grade 5.
When artificial turf was installed last year, part of the playground was left uncovered in the event that more portables are needed, which upset many parents, says Ali Youssefi, co-chair of the McKee parent council, whose son Kamyar is in one of the portable classrooms, where the kids also eat lunch.
“Frankly, nobody wants their kids to go to classes in a portable,” he said, citing air quality, low ceilings, and the lack of bathrooms and running water as major hindrances.
School zoning has been changed several times in the last few years to try to keep the school population in check.
“There are so many condos being built on the Yonge corridor, and where are you going to put all these kids?” says Youssefi.
Lang says her staff devote a lot of energy to managing the flow of students before and after school and during its staggered recesses and lunch hours, when kids eat in the gym in shifts. Working out timetables, classrooms and the use of outdoor space is an ordeal, ensuring Grade 5 classes aren’t losing instructional time with too many treks back and forth to the portables, minimizing chaos by keeping Grade 1 students in the kindergarten play area while outdoors, and creating proper spaces for the seven kindergarten classes.
“It’s a little bit of micromanaging,” she says, adding that the kids are aware the school is jam-packed and co-operate with keeping “an orderly flow.”
It’s been more than a quarter of a century since intensification pushed north on the Yonge corridor, aimed at easing congestion downtown. The planning strategy transformed the area near Sheppard Ave. into a beehive of condos, and continued marching further into North York, which has also seen a surge in sales of renovated homes with space for multi-generational families.
The density plan worked, but the crystal ball was cloudy about the nature of the growing population. While highrises shot up, it was as if nobody predicted — or planned for — the day they would eventually be full of children.
To a large extent school boards’ hands are tied.
“There is no ability in law to oppose development on the basis that the local schools are unable to accommodate the new students,” notes a staff report presented to TDSB trustees last month.
While school boards are among the many facilities that are notified about every application, they have no approval authority, which means having no space for students isn’t a reason to delay or deny construction, says Giulio Cescato, manager of city planning for central North York.
So while developments may be put on hold for something like inadequate sewers, they don’t wait for schools to catch up.
At the same time, it’s hard to predict the demographics of a new building accurately because by the time they are finished “kids are aging in and out of the school system,” says Cescato, who lives in a condo with his young son.
“It’s a guessing game at best.”
Brown says it’s time to review planning at the provincial level and consider how to strengthen the voice of the local school board.
But even more important is the issue of why developers aren’t being forced to help pay for the costs of renovations, repairs and new schools for the clients that will inhabit their buildings, he adds.
In the past year, Willowdale has been at the centre of the movement pushing the province for changes to outdated rules that parents and local politicians say are hindering school boards and profoundly affecting students and families.
It’s an issue that prompted the TDSB to file a legal challenge this week to have the Education Act amended.
The move is about levies called education development charges, which school boards are entitled to collect from developers for every new unit they construct — but only under certain conditions.
Under the current rules the TDSB is in an awkward situation. It’s the country’s largest school board in one of the fastest-growing urban areas, but can’t collect those fees.
That’s because any school board that isn’t operating at full capacity across all its schools doesn’t get the funds. And there are TDSB schools in other parts of the city that are under capacity, resulting in across-the-board surpluses of 34,582 elementary places and 21,302 in high schools.
The cost of this conundrum? Potential lost revenue of up to $350 million over the next 15 years, based on the number of units under construction, proposed or planned across the city, according to the board.
The province does designate money to boards for new schools and renovations through its capital funding priorities envelope, but the TDSB sees developer levies as a huge untapped source.
Its application for judicial review in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice this week argues the rules are “unfair and discriminatory” and contrary to the policy that “growth should pay for growth.”
While the board has a legal obligation to provide spaces for students, it cannot adequately plan or access necessary funds to accommodate those needs, says the application.
To parents like Ali Youssefi, it makes no sense that hundreds of children in Willowdale are bused out of their neighbourhoods and builders of the towers stretching into North York skies don’t have to pony up because of half-empty schools elsewhere.
Youssefi was among almost 200 parents at a ward meeting last fall with Mitzie Hunter, education minister at the time, demanding the province loosen the rules. Trustee Alexander Brown, MPP David Zimmer and Councillor John Filion also attended the meeting, which prompted a city council motion calling on the province to fix the problem.
The province is putting pressure on boards to address their own cash shortfall by closing underused schools and selling the land. Even though it doesn’t always make sense, because experience has shown that fickle demographic shifts can suddenly transform new pockets of the city into hot neighbourhoods, causing a resurgence in demand at languishing schools.
Besides, the spate of school closings in the last two years caused such backlash, particularly in rural areas, that the province put a moratorium on closures until it reviews the current decision-making processes.
The Toronto Catholic District School Board, meanwhile, is running at full capacity and does collect development charges for each unit once new development applications are approved.
But that doesn’t solve the problem for the Catholic board either, which is also feeling the space crunch in Willowdale.
According to the TDSB legal application, the Catholic board has collected levies of more than $221 million since 2000 and is expected to collect $600 million or more in the next 15 years.
But under provincial rules, those funds are only for acquiring land — a restriction both boards and grassroots organizations like Fix Our Schools desperately want lifted at a time when Ontario schools are facing a $16-billion repair backlog.
So the levies can’t be used to fix roofs, boilers and windows in many aging school buildings. Nor do they help finance creative alternatives that could make sense in dense neighbourhoods such as vertical schools that are part of condo complexes or other multi-use spaces.
One example is the new Canoe Landing project the railway lands, where both school boards and the City of Toronto are partners in a new facility that includes two schools that will open in September 2019 as well as a community centre and child-care facilities. Under an agreement struck years ago, the city has collected revenues from new developments in the area to fund the project and the boards lease the land from the city.
Elsewhere in the city though, the Catholic board is also in a pinch. As of last fall, it had collected enough eligible funds to buy 89 acres for new schools, but unlike suburban boards where parcels of land are often available near new housing developments, there are few options in the city.
Brown says the community is determined to make development charges an issue in provincial election campaign this spring, raising it at debates and candidate meetings, and are hoping for a meeting with Education Minister Indira Naidoo-Harris.
Some of the immediate pressure will be alleviated in the fall when a third-storey addition is completed at Avondale Public School south of McKee, adding another 322 spots and allowing it to accommodate 875 students.
An addition at St. Paschal Baylon Catholic School, finishing this spring, will more than double its current capacity to 700 pupils, and St. Antoine Daniel Catholic School will also have twice as many spaces when a new building opens its doors in 2020 that can handle 510 students.
But even with those new spaces, the area is still over capacity and projections by both boards show it’s only going to get worse.
It’s not a hopeful situation for residents like Vivian Leong or her neighbours whose kids can’t skip down the street to McKee each morning.
When the family moved in a couple of years ago, she figured the situation might change by the time they had a school-age child.