Neighbourhood cheers school closings, but still plan stalls: MacDonald

Members of Scarborough’s Bendale-Thomson school community are talking about the futures of five different schools

BY MOIRA MACDONALD – As published in the Toronto Sun, April 13, 2010:

Change can move at a glacial pace, which is probably what members of Scarborough’s Bendale-Thomson school community have figured out.

But even slow-moving is better than no moving, and it sounds like this week these folks are a step closer to something good.

More than two years ago people from this group — students, parents, ratepayers, principals, teachers, local politicians and other school staff — came together at one of those hackle-raising things called an “accommodation review committee” (what I often call a school closure process).

They would talk about the futures of five different schools in the area bounded by Midland Ave., Lawrence Ave., Ellesmere Rd., and Brimley Rd.

It actually went a lot better than you might expect. By the end of it, people were pretty excited. The ARC recommended in April 2008 to bring three schools together, spanning junior kindergarten right through to Grade 12 into a “campus,” that would share resources and provide much better facilities.

Bendale Business and Technical Institute would be consolidated with David and Mary Thomson Collegiate into a single high school. The overcrowded Donwood Junior Public School, which abuts onto the same 38-acre property shared by Bendale and Thomson, would be “integrated” with Thomson.

The consolidated high school would be a “composite” school (the Toronto District School Board’s preferred model for the future) offering academic and technical courses, a life skills centre for developmentally delayed students, as well as specializations in event management and hospitality; health services; and sustainable development.

It would have an urban farm, a board staff conference centre, and chances for community organizations to contribute to and use space in the new building.

A large chunk of the financing would come from amalgamating the three schools (the Bendale tech school would be shut down and the new school built on the Bendale site) and downsizing the existing school buildings, as well as selling off a parcel of the large property, which sits close to the busy corner of Midland and Lawrence Aves.

New school, new programs, better facilities, new prospects. You can see why people were excited. They put their report in. In early 2009 trustees responded back positively and asked board bureaucrats to come back with a plan, ASAP, to move ahead.

So much for ASAP, because there’s been nothing to talk about since. Frustrated, local trustee Scott Harrison recently put together a new motion to get things going and rallied the community to show their support at a board committee meeting Monday.

It might just work. The committee has asked trustees at Wednesday’s full board meeting to put a June 2010 deadline on the previous “ASAP” plan and approve a request for proposal to hire an architect.

“I’m more positive today than I was yesterday,” Harrison told me Tuesday. If a case can be made that the project can pay for itself out of the revenue and savings generated by the redevelopment, Harrison believes shovels could be in the ground by June, 2011.

But the cost and how it will be covered is the thorny issue.

Until the board puts together a design plan and costs it out, we won’t know the estimated price tag. And the board’s ability to pay, through such things as proceeds from a land sale is also unclear.

Harrison figures that based on estimates he’s seen, there’s a shortfall of just under $20 million, which ain’t chump change.

Still, it would be a shame to waste this community’s enthusiasm and hard work.

And after a year of school closure doom-and-gloom, it would be in the board’s own interests to make good on its word that closing schools can actually lead to something better for kids.


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