Failed schools: The challenge now is for citizens who’s neighbourhood schools face closure, to transition from protest to vision.

opinionandcommentBy James Smith

April 2, 2017



The next few months will be difficult for many Burlington parents and students as the Public Board decides the future of several schools. This issue is hardly new to Burlington or Halton, the phenomenon of is being played out throughout Ontario, Canada and North America. For example, Hamilton has closed 14 schools since 2003. Shifting demographics call for creative solutions. Some change is coming to Burlington Schools, what that change will look like is far from determined at this point.

Old school

While Burlington’s high schools are not quite this old – these old country schools have disappeared and been re-purposed.

In the past, boards have taken the relatively easy route (if closing a school and the ensuring protests they cause can be called easy) when a school is determined to be redundant; they have applied to municipality for re-zoning, then sell the land to the highest bidder. South East Burlington in 1987, when we moved there, had two separate schools, one high school and five public schools within walking distance. Soon both Elizabeth Gardens and Breckon Schools were closed and St Patrick School, the school our kids attended, hung on by its fingernails. At one point only having 75 students!

Having fought hard to keep our local school, I understand what parents are now going through in their attempt to keep a local school. In our case we had a little bit of luck on our side, many of the original empty-nester home owners were selling to families with a couple of kids, so more children were moving into the neighbourhood. More importantly, the former Shell refinery lands west of Burloak, north of New Street meant expanded enrollment significantly. Neither new development nor is intensification is likely going to be an answer to expand enrollment for the schools at risk. The challenge now is for citizens who’s neighbourhood schools face closure, to transition from protest to vision.

Once the decision to close a school has been made, the challenge is to question some deeply held preconceptions; no easy task. The first preconception parents especially need to rid themselves of is the myth of the local school, especially when it comes to a high schools. Local schools, the kind that parents will often define as those as “within walking distance” are more and more not places children walk to. Sure some kids walk, but a significant number of children of all ages are now chauffeured to and from school. One just has to look at the infrastructure put in place to accommodate the pick-up delivery of children in cars. Passing by a school at opening or dismissal, makes one pine to be at the Mall the last weekend before Christmas by contrast. How do local traffic jams add to a community?

Many will talk about the loss of so called open space. Schools often have rather than open space something more akin to a green deserts surrounding the school building. Rarely used manicured lawns, a landscape design element left over from the plan books of Victorian through post war planners that serves little or no purpose; we’re just used to having them. We are used to seeing these areas with nothing there, so we want to keep these green dead zones. The green deserts surrounding all schools, but especially those to be closed, are resources that presently goes wasted. Overcoming these and other preconceptions and understanding the opportunity in school closures is a big and difficult first step. I have no illusion this will be an easy process to undertake, but citizens need to be ready to embrace this change, even reluctantly.

Once the decision has been made to close a school; who best to plan and execute the redevelopment? As stated the old model was a quick rezoning to Single Family Residential, and sell twenty or 30 residential lots to the highest bidder. While the “take the money and run” approach has served the board in the past, times have changed. Given the time and effort of those who have participated in the PARC exercise have demonstrated, and the controversial nature of the decision to close schools, the Board owe the communities and the city a more inclusive re-visioning exercise.

The board of education, by ownership and necessity must be a partner in the process, and realize most of the financial return, but the lead should be taken by the city of Burlington as the city will have to manage the results of the process. I’m rarely a proponent of the 3P model, but in this case I feel a public private partnership is the best way to maximize the return to the board and the city in developing these assets.

Did I say the city? By the city I don’t mean the politicians nor the planning department. As professional and well meaning as city planners may be, this exercise should be taken up by an outside urban planning firm who doesn’t develop and plan track housing. Preclude those firms with a history of developing planning with, and for, the city of Burlington should also be a condition. In other words, an open competition rather than one from the usual suspects. One consideration would be to fund a competition where three semi finalist firms are paid to work-up general, order of magnitude proposals. This way citizens can wade in on what firm’s vision is in the best interest of the the city at large.

In such a process the city’s role should be limited to setting the general goals and parameters. These guidelines should be as loose as possible to allow the bidding firms as much creative leeway as possible. By awaiting proposals from the winning planning firm prior to changing the zoning of former school property, the city can avoid the mistake of regulation that limits development of a novel proposal. Interesting creative uses shouldn’t be precluded from the beginning due to zoning constraints. Plan, then zone. Part of any redevelopment should include re-purposing some or all of the existing school buildings wherever practical, and the development of the site of community amenity assets should be based on input from the neighbours and citizens in general

Many people find the idea of giving up on what they see as “their school” surrender. Many will feel at this point surrender is premature. Change is likely coming. The best way to prepare for change is to start considering and examine one’s prejudices and to start to imagine what the second best alternative might be. Burlington might be a better place as a result of this kind of exercise.

James Smith is a  is a former resident of Burlington and is a contract Designer, who includes Phillip H Carter Architect and Planning as one of his clients.


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2 comments to Failed schools: The challenge now is for citizens who’s neighbourhood schools face closure, to transition from protest to vision.

  • Tom Muir

    James, I think your notion of prejudice is your own prejudice.

    For starters your calling school sites; “green deserts”, “dead zone” “wasteland”, “never used”, “manicured”, “serves little or no purpose” – I could go on and on as your story is full of them.

    You wouldn’t have your story to spin without them. Have you never seen children and adults playing on them? Would you suggest concrete is better than grass to play on? What else is there.

    Read Greg’s comment above again.

    You don’t seem to be too informed of the outrageous and dishonest and deceptive conduct of the Board in the present schools issue going on right now.

    You can learn something by reading through the archives of the Gazette over the last few months.

    The HDSB tactics and position on school closures has long been an infuriating and dishonest attempt use their authority and powers to refuse accountability, refuse forthcoming information disclosure without requiring Freedom of Information requests, and muddying the water wherever they choose, to try and fool residents and parents.

    By your prejudice based, and seeming uninformed opinion in this case, the parents should just take whatever comes, and the Board would go from simple dishonesty to active destruction.

    As it has transpired, so far, the parents and residents are having none of it, especially given the Board dishonesty about how the Board themselves are the ones that created the mess they call empty seats.

    They built the empty seats without telling anyone that these new seats would eventually cost the city these seats through the closure and disposition of existing schools, now at peril through the Boards actions.

    The Boards dishonest behavior, and breach of trust is so egregious, and it continues with evasive and self-excusing statements, the parents and residents consider that this is the hill worth dying on.

    They have clearly and overwhelmingly expressed what they want in every possible criteria and option – that they want the Board to keep their hands off our schools.

    You say the Board owns the schools, and the benefits of closure and sale, but in the fact, the residents own the schools, having paid for them, the Board is their Board, responsible to them, and all the money and taxes paid is their money.

    They don’t have to apologetically surrender to changes they don’t want, as you suggest.

    You will see them fight to the end and beyond, as what the Board has done is totally unacceptable.

  • “Board owe the communities and the city a more inclusive re-visioning exercise.”

    Sorry James, City planners beat you too it. In the modified official plan any closed school immediately become “secondary intensification”. This will set it up for a 25 story apartment building and the city will loose any bidding war. It’s deliberately designed to prevent anything but a large apartment complex being built on these lands.

    I’m a little concerned by this notion of “green deserts” I see a shortage of play space as it is. Many people at the city care nothing for greenery except the occasional shrub.