The easy optics; sell the schools:
As Ottawa’s public school board struggles to meet the demands for building new schools in burgeoning suburbs and renovating older ones in the city’s core with the limited funding it receives from the province, some trustees say it’s time to generate new revenue by unloading surplus land.
The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board has a property portfolio valued at more than $1 billion. That includes schools, administrative buildings, storage facilities, outdoor education centres and vacant land, where the board hopes to build future schools.
But it also includes five elementary schools that have closed over the past decade, as well as the highly-valued former Ottawa Technical High School and a storage warehouse on Bronson Avenue near the Queensway.
Together, the seven properties are valued at nearly $25 million, according to the 2008 Municipal Property Assessment Corporation. The actual sale price could be much higher, particularly for the old technical high school, which straddles two city blocks in northwest Centretown.
At a time when provincial cash is tight and local pressure from parents is on high, the potential cash injection has some trustees saying, “Sell! Sell! Sell!”
“If we don’t seriously have a use for the property or we can collapse operations into fewer properties without really impinging on anything and there’s not a long-term strategic use we can really identify, we should get rid of the property,” said Rob Campbell, trustee for the municipal Capital and Rideau-Vanier wards.
The board’s mission, he says, is to educate students, not be a land baron.
“We shouldn’t be holding onto to it for forever and a day just because we’re not necessarily meeting some target price,” Campbell said.
Another trustee, Mark Fisher — who has been calling on the board to develop a strategic, multi-year plan for managing its assets — agrees that the board should sell its surplus property when it’s feasible and practical.
But with a $380-million infrastructure backlog and new schools needed in every corner of the city, the south Ottawa trustee admits the potential cash influx won’t go far.
“It’s shaving the ice cube,” he said.
However, Fisher says the old technical high school presents an opportunity for the OCDSB to redevelop the property with a partner or developer in order to create a longer-term revenue stream — something the board hasn’t tried before.
The same could be true at Elgin Street Public School. The current school could eventually be torn down and rebuilt to house a school on the first few floors and commercial or residential tenants above. “That is one way of potentially getting at the need to build a new school, but not necessarily having the money to do it,” Fisher said.
As for Broadview Public School — on which much of the recent debate over crumbling urban schools has focused — Fisher said the OCDSB could decide to subdivide the school grounds and sell a portion to raise money for a future rebuild.
Campbell recently asked OCDSB staff to compile a report on all lands owned by the board — not just surplus land — for this very reason.
Jennifer McKenzie, whose Kitchissippi/Somerset zone includes both the former technical high school and Broadview, wouldn’t say if she thinks the board should sell the property at 440 Albert St.
“I think we need to determine what is the optimal time, if there is, and whether we have any needs for that site long term before we do something hasty,” she said. As for severing Broadview and selling a portion of the land, McKenzie said, “I would be concerned about the (existing) shortage of green space in the community, so that issue would have to be properly addressed.”
The upside of unloading surplus land is the immediate cash infusion. But Campbell and others agree the potential downsides include getting a lower sale price than what might be possible in the future — particularly if significant improvement in the market value is anticipated — or selling a school or property today that could be needed tomorrow.
There’s also the potential concern that if the OCDSB disposes of a property, the land could then be developed in such a way that, in some people’s eyes, negatively impacts a neighbourhood. It’s a “good neighbours” argument, and one Campbell dismisses, saying the concern goes beyond the responsibilities of a school board and into the realm of city planning.
Selling surplus property is nothing new for the school board. Since amalgamation, the OCDSB has pocketed $70 million by disposing of buildings it no longer needed, and staff anticipate future sales could bring in between $5 and $10 million more over the next few years.
But a lot must happen before the OCDSB can plant a “For Sale” sign on the front lawn of a school.
Trustees must first formally declare it surplus. Then it must be offered up for sale, at fair market value, to the three other school boards, colleges and universities, and all three levels of government.
If no one bites after 90 days, then the board can decide to either auction the property or put it on the market.
Two shuttered elementary schools are currently for sale, but haven’t attracted much interest. Others — such as Merivale Public School, which closed in 2004 — have more value to the OCDSB than what they might bring in by being sold, according to board staff.
“For the value that we think we would receive, it’s more important for us to keep it to give us some flexibility if we need emergency school space, whether it’s swing space while we renovate something or if we need to create school space similar to what we’re doing with Parkwood Hills,” said Mike Carson, the board’s superintendent of facilities and planning. Closed in 2010, the Parkwood Hills Public School building will be temporarily reopened this fall to house students until the new elementary school in Chapman Mills, currently under construction, opens next year.
As for the technical high school on Albert Street, Carson said the building continues to increase in value and may be worth disposing of at some point down the road. “We don’t believe it is at this point,” Carson said. In the medium to long term, he added, the building is worth “substantially more than $10 million.”
“As a public body, we need to be very careful before we enter into any significant transaction like one that would involve such a major parcel of land downtown,” he said.
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Very short term vision, in my view. The moment a school is sold and flattened, the future renewal of a neighbourhood is also flattened. There are always going to be developers coveting the expanse of school properties in prime urban locations. Immediate cash flow benefits, offset and eliminated by longer term costs, economic and social. Yes, my former primary school in Saskatoon is now the Saskatoon Islamic Centre. What does that do for the renewal of my former neighbourhood, Grosvenor Park? Yes, Laurentian High School in Ottawa has been flattened for a Wal-Mart. What does that do for the future renewal of that neighbourhood? What about the cultural effects of decades of students who attended that school?
I go past the former Confederation High School in Ottawa. Fortunately, not yet flattened. Nice, prime development land. Announcement of a Confederation High School reunion. Former students coming back to celebrate a high school that is no more.
In my view, overcrowding in one municipal area can be addressed through using the educational infrastructure in other areas. I see all these portable classrooms outside Pleasant Park Public School, in Ottawa. Yet down the street is the former Immaculate Heart of Mary School, fortunately not yet flattened, but used only for a private primary school program. Near my former Ottawa primary school, Featherston Drive Public School, is an upscale and recent housing development, replacing the former French Catholic primary school that was there for many years. So long forgotten that I can’t easily get the name on an internet search.
So much institutionalized transporation costs, involving millions of dollars in expenditures. If one were to take the position that the provision of educational facilties was more important that fully subsidized student transportation costs, perhaps there might be a shift in focus.