Under Ontario’s funding formula, school boards no longer have the power to raise tax dollars. To pay for school repairs and constrained by the provincial government’s funding directives, school boards simply sell off our schools. Citing 2015 figures, Campaign for Public Education reports that, since amalgamation, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has disposed of 82 properties.
As the TDSB considers whether to sell yet another west-end school – Vaughan Road Academy, former student, Elizabeth Cinello, turns our attention to two neighbourhood elementary schools, already sold and demolished. One, was her own school where she attended kindergarten, the other was a feeder school for Vaughan Road Academy.
Twisted steel beams, torn blackboards, shredded classroom walls. Doors that open onto a void, smashed windows, piles of bricks. The aftermath of the unrelenting power drill, wrecking ball and bulldozer is devastating. It’s the closest thing I can think of to the sight of a building destroyed by an earthquake or a bomb, only it is worse because we are doing it to ourselves.
Hughes Public School and Briar Hill Junior Public School were sold and demolished. They were two historic schools serving Toronto’s working class west end and the former City of York, an area in transition and vulnerable to the province’s funding formula and new public management administration practices.
The government has created a structure that forces school boards to look for efficiencies. In other words, boards must reduce costs and make decisions based on short-term financial objectives rather than on educational needs. The rationale is that school closures will free up money to offer better programming to students in other schools. Instead, the result is uncertainty and chaos for students, their families and the communities they live in.
Ministry of Education policies favour new super schools over our existing neighbourhood jewels because they are cheaper to run. It’s a practice that is shuttering historic old schools and replacing them with mega schools that could see elementary and high schools combined in one location, sometimes over an hour away from home. An example is the proposed $44 million Kingsville super school (location TBA) which will have a capacity of 2,000 students.
Hughes Public School RIP 2016
In the 1960s I was a student at Hughes Public School located at Caledonia Road and Innes Avenue. We lived down the street in a modest second floor flat, near St. Clair.
Between Davenport Road and Lawrence Avenue, where the roads chase the undulating terrain up and down, grand schools were often built at the top of a hill. These school buildings were and still are significant architectural landmarks and important city infrastructure. They looked like castles to those of us who lived in the surrounding working class neighbourhoods.
Every day, on my way to school, I joined my friends and we walked together up the Caledonia Avenue or McRoberts Avenue hills. Mature maple trees lined the way to this enchanting school that dominated the top of our neighbourhood. With programs for children and adults, and its year-round playfield, it was part of the area’s everyday life. It was an expression of the hopes and aspirations people had for their children – a better life through education.
Built in 1912, the 17-room school opened with 286 students. It was named for James Laughlin Hughes, Chief Inspector of Schools for Toronto from 1874 to 1913, when he retired. He distinguished himself by introducing kindergarten classes to Ontario, a controversial and novel idea at the time, one that benefited working class children in particular.
To honour the prominent Education Inspector, Hughes Public School was built with special care. It was the grandest building in the neighbourhood – an area where during the week, immigrants from the British Isles eked out a living on construction sites around the city and in the nearby Junction area factories. On weekends, workers built their own homes, even while the school itself was being built, in what came to be known as “The Shacklands”.
And what a school the Shacklands children had: an open elegant entryway and a multi-level foyer framed by rounded staircases with beautifully carved banisters that led to the second and third floors. Standing outside the first floor classrooms you could look up, way up, at the building’s vaulted ceiling. I remember a skylight.
A huge bay window looking south over the playground and grassy field flooded the enormous kindergarten room with light. It was spacious and airy with many play areas and activity centres, a fitting tribute to the tenacious Inspector.
Instead of the typical straight hallways you see in most schools, each upper floor had a pleasing circular configuration around an open balcony from which you could look down to the first floor foyer and take advantage of a unique perspective while scrutinizing the top of people’s heads as they moved about. Higher grades were located in the upper level classrooms where gleaming wood floors, high ceilings and large windows awaited us.
This impressive school building, and others like it, where no expense was spared, told us two things: first, education is important, it’s something to be valued, and secondly, we were important and valued. The school made us feel special.
Click on first image to enlarge and view in sequence
In 2000, the TDSB closed Hughes Public School. The YWCA’s Beatrice House, a transitional home for single mothers and their children, leased the school and moved in. The building was modified to suit its new purpose. I visited the school during this time and was sorry to see the balconies had been closed off (an earlier renovation) and the staircases altered, but I was glad the building had a tenant that was serving the community. Classrooms were transformed into private living areas for the families and each room had its own bathroom. The grand old school still had that special feel to it, and it was good to see children in the building.
For a glimpse of the old school and the great work Beatrice House did:
Urbancorp, Hughes Public School and the Hungarian House
In 2014, through its real estate subsidiary, Toronto Lands Corporation (TLC) the TDSB sold Hughes Public School to Urbancorp, the same developer who bought and demolished the Hungarian House on St. Clair Avenue West.
According to a buzzbuzzhome.com article, the asking price for the school was $8,900,000. Etobicoke York Community Council minutes describe Urbancorp’s proposal:
“…14 semi-detached dwellings fronting Caledonia Road, 14 semi-detached dwellings fronting McRoberts Avenue, and 10 semi-detached and 3 rowhouse dwellings fronting Innes Avenue, for a total of 41 dwellings.”
Staff was instructed to give notice for a community consultation meeting to residents and landowners within 120 meters of the redevelopment site, a standard but absurdly short distance set by the city.
Urbancorp, which also bought two other schools from the TDSB, demolished Hughes Public School this past spring while filing for bankruptcy. The site is empty and locked up and looks like a wasteland. An Ontario Superior Court judge approved the sale of six Urbancorp sites to different buyers, including Mattamy Homes, School Sites Acquisition Corp., Wang Zhendong Holdings Corp., Fernbrook Homes and Front Door Developments Inc., which got Urbancorp’s St. Clair West site, now a private parking lot. I don’t know who bought the Hughes Public School site but clearly there’s no shortage of developers interested in buying Toronto’s school properties.
People who hoped to purchase an Urbancorp townhouse, listed at a starting price of $699,990, are wondering if they will ever see their deposit. According to its website, Beatrice House is still looking for a home.
Read a more detailed story about Urbancorp, Beatrice House and Hughes Public School here.
Briar Hill Public School RIP 2015
Halting noise, clouds of dust, mountains of debris; the relentless beeping bells of the demolition vehicles as they move back and forth, defiant of the lawn signs erected by residents. The community waged a long but unsuccessful battle to keep the school building and property as a public asset such as a much-needed community centre or a neighbourhood hub.
No school is safe when it is added to the TDSB Pupil Accommodation Review List. Once on that list, it is put under the lens of the Ministry of Education’s funding formula. Few schools can pass that test so it all boils down to what the board’s number crunchers recommend. When board trustees decide to sell your school, Toronto Lands Corporation takes over, lists the property, sells it, and our community touchstones disappear with a sold sign.
In 2013, the TDSB sold Briar Hill Junior Public School and its almost two-acre property to Madison Homes. The company planned to build 124 stacked townhomes and four commercial units on the site, but not before going to the OMB, and not before having to deal with infuriated residents.
Click on any photo to enlarge
Closed in 2012, Briar Hill Public School had a 185-year history in the area known as Fairbanks, north of Eglinton Avenue off Dufferin Street, and was closely linked to the City of York’s early settlers. Archival documents show that the site was home to one of Toronto’s earliest public schools, dating back to the 1850s. We dig so scrupulously for our past while at the same time burying it under budget targets.
According to the August 2013 Stage 1-2 archeological report prepared by Archaeological Assessments Ltd.:
“The earliest school dates back to at least 1851 and consisted of a single room log structure referred to as the Needhams School. It was followed by a single room brick schoolhouse in 1863 referred to as Fairbanks School Section No.15. That school was replaced in 1927 by Briar Hill Junior Public School which still stands today on the subject property.”
The report describes various archeological field methods including shovel test pitting and trench digging used during the archeological investigation but concludes there were no archaeological finds. It recommended no further action be taken.
Earlier, in February 2013, the city adopted the recommendations of its Parks, Forestry and Recreation Department – to purchase the southwest corner of the school’s property where a playground and mature trees were located.
Residents wanted more than the corner parkette which is close to busy and noisy Dufferin Street. They focused their energy on the heritage aspect of the school property and went to work unearthing additional historical research. They knew something was buried under that soil.
During the fight to save the site, I met a resident who showed me a pile of documents he had put together to prove the community’s case. Surely, if the old school were found, it would make a difference, he thought, as he sifted through the papers. After all, he insisted, a Stage 1-3 assessment confirmed that a deeply buried foundation of the 1863 school and its 1908 addition existed. In fact, in 2014 the site was registered as the Fairbanks School Archaeological Site.
Click on any photo to enlarge and view in sequence
Official accounts related to the project, like the staff reports from the City Planning Division, do not capture the community’s frustration and anger at losing their almost two hundred year old school site. One report to the North York Community Council, dated January 2015, explains that thanks in part to residents who came forward with new historical information, the landowner was directed to complete a Stage 4 Archaeological Assessment of the property.
A foundation trench was excavated; the buried foundations were examined, documented, and covered up. Case closed. Residents of the old neighbourhood, who painstakingly gathered historical data, will have to be happy with an interpretive plaque commemorating the history of the Fairbanks community and the disappeared school site.
Today, there’s a big crane on the site and construction is under way. Parks, Forestry and Recreation has recommended that the parkette be officially named “Dufferin Hill Park”.
Click on photos to enlarge
Vaughan Road Academy
The latest school closed and in jeopardy in this neighbourhood, Vaughan Road Academy, is in excellent physical shape. The city’s Parks and Recreation Department runs swimming lessons in its pool and The Vaughan Road Infant and Toddler Centre is a vital part of the community. The school has a large gymnasium, a beautiful auditorium and extensive green space. Its cafeteria is bright and airy, thanks to northeast-facing skylights. Its 1960s addition on Vaughan Road hides the original and more attractive 1927 façade now part of a V-shaped inner courtyard.
All these factors, as well as a need for a community centre with an indoor pool, gym and a place where not-for-profits can deliver social services to the neighbourhood, suggest keeping the school as a core holding. A core holding means the Board does not sell the school but keeps it for future use, including community use.
In addition, neighbourhood parents report that in recent years, extra kindergarten classes had to be added at local elementary schools, to accommodate an increase in enrolments. All the more reason for the TDSB not to sell the school.
The Oakwood-Vaughan Neighbourhood Action Partnership (OVNAP) is a group of very active local residents and agencies working to keep the school property in public hands and transform it into a community hub. The group has been consulting with the community, conducting visioning workshops and meeting with school officials, local councillors, health care representatives and community agencies. For more information click here.
February 1, 2017, is the date of the TDSB Planning and Priority Committee meeting which will make a recommendation on the future of the school. To submit a written deputation or to get more information about making a deputation in favour of keeping Vaughan Road Academy as a core holding click here.
– Elizabeth Cinello
Photos by Elizabeth Cinello
Every entity along the way, whether it’s the spectacularly incompetent TDSB, the Ontario Ministry of Education, the Community Council or the ward councillor has ownership in the destruction of these historical treasures, built in the day when education was a vital social leveller. To only notify residents within 120 metres of an impending development is clearly wrong and obviously designed to favour development by keeping objections to a minimum.
Roy Murray, Toronto
I’ve thought long and hard about how to say how devastated I am to read of such destruction in our neighbourhood..this seems to be going on right under our noses without comment or outrage on the part of the citizens—us!!
It makes me sick to my stomach to think of these beautiful historic buildings, a credit to our past and our value put on the importance of education for our children…torn out of our community to be replaced by a few townhouses or worse, empty lots, waiting for a buyer.. please do protest against this taking away of such beautiful historic buildings, and at least keep them as core buildings, to be used in different ways by, and treasured by us all.
Susan O’Neill, Toronto
This poignant article illustrates two important facts about society: a) it’s always about the money (lack of proper funding from higher levels of government cause this sell-off, and developers are willing to pay huge amounts for city property); b) many beautiful and irreplaceable things have been lost because not enough of us cared sufficiently.
Robert Fisher, Toronto