Sell­ing sur­plus city land to pri­vate schools panned

Edmonton Journal - - FRONT PAGE - JANET FRENCH

For more than a decade, Ed­mon­ton land de­clared sur­plus by school boards has been ear­marked for in­fill hous­ing for se­niors and first­time home buy­ers.

Now, a pro­posal to sell two plots of sur­plus land to pri­vate schools has some elected of­fi­cials ques­tion­ing whether that could threaten the vi­a­bil­ity of nearby pub­lic schools.

Coun. Ed Gib­bons said a re­cent city com­mit­tee de­ci­sion to move for­ward with the sale of two lots — one to a pri­vate Sikh school, and the other to an Is­lamic school — is a sur­pris­ing twist that could strain re­la­tion­ships.

“We’re go­ing to go back into the days when we were fight­ing in be­tween the school boards and the city,” Gib­bons said.

Since 2006, Ed­mon­ton school dis­tricts have handed 41 pieces of sur­plus land to the city. It kept three for city in­fra­struc­ture, but the rest, at coun­cil’s be­hest, were to be de­vel­oped into a mix of hous­ing for se­niors, low-in­come res­i­dents and new buy­ers try­ing to break into the mar­ket.

If the two pro­posed land sales are ap­proved by city coun­cil, it will be the first time the city has sold land orig­i­nally in­tended for pub­lic schools to pri­vate schools. How­ever, school dis­tricts have sold prop­er­ties di­rectly to pri­vate schools be­fore. The cities of Cal­gary and Red Deer have never sold a sur­plus school site to a pri­vate school, ei­ther.

Ed­mon­ton Pub­lic School Board chair Michael Janz said he was shocked to find out about the pro­posal, and dis­grun­tled the city never no­ti­fied the board. With the city’s ro­bust in­fill hous­ing pro­gram un­der­way for more than a decade, school trustees had no idea sell­ing the land to pri­vate schools was a pos­si­bil­ity.

The board has also made no se­cret of its dis­dain for pub­lic dol­lars fund­ing pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion in the prov­ince.

Janz said with­out more no­tice from the city, sell­ing land in ma­ture neigh­bour­hoods to pri­vate schools could sig­nif­i­cantly dis­rupt the district’s abil­ity to plan, and could lead to more pub­lic schools clos­ing.

TUS­SLE FOR STU­DENTS

If the land sale is ap­proved, the Mus­lim As­so­ci­a­tion of Canada would like to move from its “suf­fo­cat­ing” lo­ca­tion in an old In­gle­wood-area Catholic school to a new build­ing in the Evans­dale neigh­bour­hood, said Is­sam Saleh, chair of the school’s man­age­ment com­mit­tee.

The school would be a “great ad­di­tion” to Evans­dale, where many Ed­mon­ton Mus­lims al­ready live, shop and wor­ship, he said.

How­ever, the move could have sig­nif­i­cant con­se­quences for nearby pub­lic schools like Kil­lar­ney and Glen­garry, which “might as well be called a Mus­lim school,” Gib­bons said.

“What hap­pens now that they’re able to build their own school a few blocks north? Is this go­ing to strip the kids out of Glen­garry? Is Glen­garry go­ing to be­come an­other school that has to be knocked down? If I was the pub­lic school board ... I think they’re go­ing to be a ma­jor con­cern, and we should be very care­ful how we do it.”

The pub­lic board didn’t build schools on the sur­plus sites be­cause there wasn’t enough de­mand in the area, Janz said.

Ed­mon­ton pub­lic has sev­eral ag­ing, un­der­used schools in core ar­eas, and is in the process of con­sid­er­ing sev­eral school clo­sures and con­sol­i­da­tions in north­west Ed­mon­ton.

Saleh is shocked by the pub­lic school board’s re­sis­tance. For five years, the Is­lamic school has at­tempted, un­suc­cess­fully, to forge a part­ner­ship with Ed­mon­ton Pub­lic Schools, he said.

He can’t un­der­stand why the school board would see the in­de­pen­dent school as com­pe­ti­tion when it of­fers a unique pro­gram un­avail­able in the pub­lic sys­tem.

“This is the beauty of this city and this coun­try is to make sure that there are cer­tain pro­grams that are pro­vided in the school sys­tem,” he said.

It’s too early to es­ti­mate the cost or time­line of a new Is­lamic school build­ing at 150 Av­enue and 88 Street if the sale goes through, he said.

Like the Is­lamic school, the Head­way school com­mu­nity would also like to be closer to where many stu­dents live.

Now lo­cated in For­est Heights, the K-12 school teaches daily classes in Pun­jabi, and ob­serves Sikh and Hindu cul­ture and tra­di­tions, prin­ci­pal Jag­winder Singh Sidhu said. Many stu­dents travel half an hour from Mill Woods each day to at­tend the school, which also of­fers Sikh stud­ies classes to ju­nior high stu­dents.

Head­way has pro­posed to buy a sur­plus school site in Kiniski Gar­dens at 38 Av­enue and 38 Street to ac­com­mo­date up to 400 stu­dents. About 370 are en­rolled in the school now, Sidhu said.

Sidhu doesn’t un­der­stand why the pub­lic school board would see Head­ways as more of a com­peti­tor in a dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tion. Most fam­i­lies in­tent on a Sikh ed­u­ca­tion are al­ready en­rolled, he said.

“Why are peo­ple against other schools? They should just try to make them­selves bet­ter in­stead of try­ing to go against other schools and stop them from pro­gress­ing.” Sidhu said.

NOT A DONE DEAL

The sale of th­ese sites to the pri­vate schools is not a done deal. They will go to a pub­lic hear­ing be­fore coun­cil, likely in early 2017.

Us­ing the land for hous­ing is still a city pri­or­ity, Coun. Bev Esslinger said. But when the pro­pos­als came forth from the so­ci­eties want­ing to use the land for schools — which was the orig­i­nal in­tent for the site — coun­cil’s ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee de­cided it was worth con­sid­er­ing, she said.

Esslinger, a for­mer Ed­mon­ton Pub­lic school trus­tee, said de­spite joint plan­ning agree­ments inked be­tween the school boards and the city, coun­cil­lors can’t favour pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion in­ter­ests over pri­vate ones. When you ask neigh­bours whether they’d rather see a new school or more hous­ing built on th­ese sites, they usu­ally choose a school, she said.

Coun. Michael Oshry said if the school board gave up the sites, it’s no longer up to them how the land is used.

Pri­vate schools usu­ally of­fer unique pro­grams tar­geted at a spe­cific de­mo­graphic, Oshry said. He doesn’t un­der­stand how pub­lic schools would per­ceive them as com­pe­ti­tion for stu­dents.

Al­though there is an un­de­ni­able need for af­ford­able hous­ing, coun­cil should be open to many op­tions for us­ing sur­plus school land, Coun. An­drew Knack said.

“Those schools add to the vi­brancy. They can ac­tu­ally add to the in­fill con­ver­sa­tions. If you have a good, ac­tive school, that’s go­ing to draw more peo­ple to the com­mu­nity,” Knack said.

FEARS OF SET­TING A PRECE­DENT

Pri­vate schools were not the orig­i­nal in­tent for the land, said Janz. Un­like pri­vate schools, pub­lic schools are com­pelled to take all stu­dents who live in the at­ten­dance area, re­gard­less of abil­ity, cul­ture or re­li­gion, he said.

He has ques­tions about whether the pro­posed sales could open the door for other sur­plus school sites in Ed­mon­ton and across the prov­ince to end up in the hands of in­de­pen­dent schools.

The pub­lic school board has re­quested meet­ings with the city and min­istry of ed­u­ca­tion. Janz also ques­tions if the Mu­nic­i­pal Gov­ern­ment Act, which gov­erns the land trans­fers and is cur­rently un­der re­view, should ad­dress the is­sue.

Ed­mon­ton Catholic School Board chair­woman Mar­i­lyn Bergstra wouldn’t do an in­ter­view on the topic. “Time needs to be set aside to have a thor­ough dis­cus­sion on what this means for pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion and en­ter into a di­a­logue with the City of Ed­mon­ton on this mat­ter,” she said in a brief state­ment.

Mu­nic­i­pal Af­fairs Depart­ment spokesman Tim Seefeldt said in an email: “Is­sues re­lat­ing to mu­nic­i­pal and school re­serves were raised by a num­ber of stake­hold­ers” dur­ing a sum­mer con­sul­ta­tion tour about the act. He wouldn’t pro­vide specifics.

As for other sur­plus school sites, Esslinger said each plot of land and every ex­pres­sion of in­ter­est will be con­sid­ered in­de­pen­dently by coun­cil.

Gib­bons said the in­fill hous­ing pro­gram has so far proved pop­u­lar.

“(The pro­posed sale is) go­ing against what I thought it was for. I thought it was go­ing to be for hous­ing.”

Those schools add to the vi­brancy. They can ac­tu­ally add to the in­fill con­ver­sa­tions

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