The real estate manager for Canada's largest school board says part of the answer to its growing $3.7-billion repair backlog lies in its nearly 50 non-instructional properties.
The Toronto Lands Corporation (TLC), which manages the real estate portfolio for the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), says it has a plan to sell and leverage some of those non-instructional sites in an effort to find a potential $1 billion to reinvest over the next decade.
"A billion dollars can easily be translated into 50 or 60 new replacement schools," TLC CEO Daryl Sage said.
"As soon as you do that, you can see how all of a sudden the deferred maintenance problems the TDSB has will start to be significantly impacted in a positive way."
Non-instructional sites are buildings the board owns that have no TDSB students in them. They are used for administrative purposes or are leased out —many of them to private schools.
The TDSB's total real estate portfolio is valued at around $15 billion to $20 billion, according to Sage. The board owns 5,000 acres of land, nearly 600 schools, 36 non-instructional or administrative sites and 11 parcels of vacant land. But it's still struggling to keep up with much-needed repairs at many of its existing schools.
"The school board is land rich and cash poor," Sage said.
The TDSB says its repair backlog could reach nearly $5 billion in the next few years — an issue exacerbated by the pandemic as problems like school air quality became top of mind. The board has identified eight schools that would cost more to repair than tear down and build anew, and another 101 that are at the tipping point. The TLC and TDSB chair say selling and leveraging the non-instructional real estate will help, as long as the provincial government can be flexible and remove some red tape.
"We've built our mission and we've built our annual plan all around the idea of unlocking the potential that TDSB has in their land … to actually focus on building exceptional learning spaces for kids and for the community to enjoy as well," Sage said.
TLC's plan sees schools serving as community hubs
The TLC's focus right now is on non-instructional sites, which is part of a larger "modernization strategy" that would see schools become community hubs through partnerships with different levels of government to keep the buildings public.
For example, a non-instructional site could be developed with municipal and provincial partners to create a school complete with community services like a public library and pool, affordable housing and long-term care beds.
Krista Wylie, a parent and co-founder of the advocacy group Fix Our Schools, says she's on board with the plan.
"I think that's really an important delineation for people and politicians to consider is that this infrastructure that we happen to call a school today could be a community centre ... focused on senior citizens in 20 years," she said.
The TLC's early pilot projects include Davisville Junior Public School in midtown. The new school was a partnership between the province, the TDSB and the City of Toronto.
The province replaced the school building, the city is in charge of the future community playground and aquatic recreation centre and the TDSB leased a parcel of the property at a nominal rate to the city to build the centre, which the public will be able to use. In exchange, students will have access to the pool during specific school hours.
Lynne LeBlanc says the old school building was small and packed students together. She says her two children appreciate the new school's space and natural light. LeBlanc, who is also a parent co-chair of the Davisville Parent School Council, says the community is excited the area will have a hub of facilities everyone can use.
"Our community is going through exponential growth and it's definitely really wanted and needed in our area," she said.
TDSB chair Alexander Brown points to research that's found students who attend school in newer buildings have improvements in attendance, effort and test scores.
"You're going to have the rate of engagement going up. They're not going to want to go to another school that's outside of their area," he said.
In the case of David and Mary Thomson Collegiate Institute in Scarborough, which was completed in 2019, Sage says the board severed off portions of the land, some of which was sold to a developer to build housing. The city bought another piece to build a daycare and recreation centre. The sales resulted in a $33-million return to the board.
Provincial red tape in the way, board chair says
So, why hasn't the TDSB built more of these schools by now and helped clear the repair backlog?
Sage and Brown point to two main reasons, the first being that the TLC's mandate was expanded just two years ago, which then opened the door to the ideas and planning.
"It allowed us to do evaluations and a lot of that work and develop these strategies, which have never been considered or never been presented to the province," Sage said.
The second is provincial red tape. The funds the board receives from selling real estate must go to existing repairs or updates at schools, not to new additions or schools unless it's approved by the province, according to the TLC.
"We still need approval for every single cent that we use of that money, even though we, as a board, we're the ones who've put it into the pot," Brown said.
He says he'd also like more flexibility when it comes to approving projects, which can take several years.
There's also a moratorium in place on closing schools, which doesn't allow the board to shutter schools with low enrolment and sell the building, even though it has nearly 60,000 surplus student spaces. Wylie says she doesn't see the TLC's plan coming to full fruition without more flexibility from the province.
"A lot of a change in mindset and a willingness to collaborate in a really constructive, solution oriented way needs to happen within the provincial government," she said.
Sage says the board is not looking for more money from the province, but hopes it will address legislative, regulatory and policy barriers that are standing in the way of progress.
Province says it's building new schools, speeding up construction
At a news conference on Wednesday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the province will spend $565 million on building 26 new schools and 20 permanent additions across Ontario. It hasn't been made public how many will be within the TDSB.
That's part of the province's larger plan to spend $14 billion over the next decade to build new schools and child-care spaces while renewing and maintaining existing schools, according to the province.
"Students in all regions of Ontario will benefit from these safe, modern learning environments that are digitally connected and fully support their learning needs," Lecce said on Wednesday.
The government also says it will collaborate with school boards to accelerate school construction through a pilot project using modular methods.
"This will deliver efficiencies in construction and reduce build times so that students can take advantage of new and updated schools sooner," according to a news release.