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Condos shoot skyward in pockets of Toronto targeted for high-density growth. Yet the Toronto District School Board can’t collect a cent of levies from developers to expand overcrowded schools there.
The smaller Toronto Catholic board collects millions of dollars a year in “education development charges” as new building permits are granted. But that board is also handcuffed, because it can use the funds only to buy new land, and not for additions or repairs to existing schools.
None of it makes sense to a group of frustrated Willowdale parents and TDSB trustees, who say the system is unfair and outdated, and want rules governing the charges amended in booming Toronto locations like North York and along the Yonge St. corridor.
On Monday, they will make their case at a public meeting with Education Minister Mitzie Hunter.
Willowdale has seen an explosion of new families “but the money is not following for school infrastructure,” said Jaime Brand, chair of the parent council at Hollywood Public School near Bayview and Sheppard Aves, which is operating at 150 per cent capacity with 400 pupils.
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Every day that builders launch new projects and aren’t required to kick in for education, “thousands of dollars are thrown aside” that could be put toward schools for kids moving into their buildings, she said.
There are two issues strapping Toronto boards: requirements to qualify for education development charges calculated per residential unit; and limits on how that money can be spent.
To be eligible, a board’s total enrolment has to exceed capacity, which is not the case at TDSB, which has surplus space and underused schools in some areas. That leaves it in a unique position among Ontario boards — unable to collect development levies to fund badly needed expansion elsewhere.
Willowdale is among areas feeling the squeeze as pursuit of urban density puts pressure on schools that anchor communities. Portable classrooms sprout like mushrooms, signs warn new residents not to count on spots in local schools, and children are bused out of their catchment areas.
A TDSB report last April said 275,000 residential units were in the process of being built in Toronto — amounting to potential revenue of $ 300 million in education development charges the board can’t currently access.
The Ontario Public School Boards’ Association and the advocacy group Fix Our Schools are among organizations also pushing for more flexible rules.
“If developers are choosing to build in a certain area, in large part it’s because of good schools their buyers can go to,” said Fix Our Schools co-founder Krista Wylie.
“So surely to goodness if a developer is benefitting . . . then they should contribute back.”
She said restrictions should be loosened so those charges can be used to address the estimated $ 15-billion repair backlog among Ontario schools needing new roofs and furnaces.
Local builders, however, say they pay charges as required and stress that those levies get passed along to buyers.
Current legislation “is fair and appropriate,” said Bryan Tuckey, president of BILD, the GTA homebuilders association.
Meanwhile, the Toronto Catholic District School Board collects education development charges but can’t spend it on rebuilds or repairs needed on properties it already owns.
The board has eligible funds to buy 89 acres for new schools, said Angelo Sangiorgio, associate director of planning and facilities.
“But where do you find a five-acre parcel in Toronto?” he adds, especially in high-demand neighbourhoods.
The regulations, introduced in 1990, make sense in suburban areas where new subdivisions are built and land is set aside for school boards to purchase. But in areas of urban intensification “we’re building up, while the 905 is building out.”
Hunter “remains open to feedback on education development charges,” and hopes for “a constructive conversation” with Willowdale parents on Monday, said ministry spokesperson Heather Irwin.
She noted the province is helping fund three school expansions in the area and provides capital to boards that aren’t eligible for the charges.
But parents say they’re aiming to make it a provincial election issue next spring.
“Families are moving in and new condos are being built, but where are all these children going to go to school?” said Melody Nguyen, parent of two children at Elkhorn Public School, which has 400 students and five portables.
Local TDSB Trustee Alexander Brown said while the province has invested in adding new school spaces, that won’t meet demand for long, based on projected growth rates and more than 70 developments underway in the area to be completed by 2021.
“We can’t keep fiddling with this broken funding formula,” said Brown. “We’ve got to make bold moves based on the idea of neighbourhoods having strong schools at the centre of them.”
At a public meeting on overcrowded schools last February, local Liberal MPP David Zimmer and City Councillor John Filion also called for new rules.
McKee Public School near Yonge and Finch has almost doubled its size to 775 students since Ali Youssefi’s eldest son started there a decade ago. The school got an addition a few years ago, but four portables have been added since.
“You build something and it’s practically full in a matter of a year,” said Youssefi, whose youngest son is in Grade 5.
New students near Yonge and Eglinton, where current applications from developers would create 13,350 new residential units, are also “on the cusp” of having to be sent out of area, said TDSB trustee Shelley Laskin.
Enrolment at Eglinton Public School, currently at 112 per cent capacity with 569 students, is projected to hit 801 students in five years, she said. But there is no room to expand inside the school or on its small site.
A strip plaza directly south of it that recently sold could have provided an option for expansion, said Laskin — if the TDSB had been permitted to collect education development charges to pay for it.
At nearby John Fisher Public School, plans for a 35-storey apartment building next door led to a protracted fight between the developer and parents over health and safety concerns.
It cost the TDSB considerable time and resources, including upgrades to the school before construction commenced this fall. The project garnered the Catholic board more than $ 470,000 in education development charges, based on the current levy of $ 1,493 per residential unit. Under current rules, TDSB wasn’t eligible for any of those charges.