Selling surplus city land to private schools panned
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