Sherwood Forest School is about to be put out to tender; it will not survive the process.
Because nowhere in the plans that the city has discussed with the community was there any suggestion of the possibility of saving the school.
I have no particular attachment to the school. Unlike Ward 6 Councillor Phil Squire, I did not attend the school nor, unlike Ward 1 Councillor Michael Van Holst, do I have relatives who have done so.
But a school is a community hub. It’s where children spend much of their waking hours, where they make friends, some of them lifelong, where they learn their basic academic skills, where they get their first taste of competition and cooperation
It’s also where their parents meet other parents and the teachers who influence their children’s lives. It’s where they see their kids perform on the playground and in the school gym. It’s a gathering place.
It wasn’t the city that decided to close Sherwood Forest School a couple of years ago. That was the province’s doing. Just not enough little kids around to warrant keeping the school open, community hub notwithstanding. Better to drive or bus kids to a different neighbourhood and save a few dollars. All of the action is in the outer suburbs, not in the old established neighbourhoods. Sell it to the highest bidder unless other publicly funded educational institutions or the city can find a use for it and come up with the necessary dollars.
At the time the school was declared superfluous, I was looking around for a place to meet the educational needs and interests of London’s seniors. The Society for Learning in Retirement London, of which I was a member, was finding its location at Windermere on the Mount a little pricey. We needed new digs.
I love SLR. I had joined even before I was fully retired, left while I served on the Board of Control, and then returned when that gig was finished. It’s a great organization for people who love learning and sharing the results of their research efforts with others. Courses in history, literature, music, science and technology, art. All at affordable prices.
That’s because no one gets paid to teach; everyone is a teacher and learner. The curriculum is set by a volunteer committee and the classes are seminar-style. Everybody takes a turn. No one gets graded. There are no tests or quizzes.
But lots of debate and discussion. These are people who have lived and learned and want to learn some more. All they need is a place to hold the classes. A place to call home. A community hub.
That’s why, when I heard about Sherwood Forest, I thought it would be perfect. If only we could use it for a few years without paying an arm and a leg, we could keep the school going because, after all, it would just be a matter of time before there would be enough little ones to warrant re-opening the school which, after all, was in good condition. Roof recently replaced, good heating and cooling system, good sized classrooms.
And to top it off, we had the promise of a partner, a not for profit dedicated to the fitness of seniors. A perfect match, considering that the school had an excellent gymnasium. We could use it in the daytime, everybody leaves at four o’clock, and it could be used by after school groups and community organizations evenings and weekends. What could be more ideal?
Besides, the community was not big on development in that area and really wanted to keep the green space that was adjacent to the school.
For a while we were hopeful. There were talks with a representative of the ratepayers’ association, with the ward councillor, with some city administrators, with the local MPP, and with the school board about our vision and the hurdles we were facing. As a community organization, we would be treated like any developer who wanted the property. It would go to the highest bidder. There was no way we could compete with that. We really could use some support. And just when we thought we had a champion, there were staffing changes.
But eventually, city council indicated an interest in turning the school into a senior’s hub, even unanimously approving a $250,000 placeholder in the 2014 budget for renovations to that end. The project could be paid for through a community improvement plan, it was suggested.
That was in February of 2013. However, by July all bets were off. There were concerns expressed by the legal department about using community improvement funds in that way and the civic administration saw no need for a seniors’ centre in that area. Sure, the residents could use a space for fitness, but the gym was outdated, having been built in 1998. Besides, there was always the Medway Arena across Wonderland Road. And seniors today don’t want to be relegated to a seniors’ facility, the report claimed; it should be a place for all ages. The city was not interested in a standalone seniors’ hub.
By then it was too late to argue the case. We were pretty sure could cover the costs of maintaining the building—after all, we had managed to pay our bills for twenty years—but without the city, there was no way we could compete with the private sector developers who would see this as a desirable area for a lucrative infill project. Who would front us the cash?
Imagine my surprise when, without warning, the city suddenly laid out $1.2 million to acquire the property. Apparently the ward councillor, Nancy Branscombe, and the ratepayers’ association had convinced them of the need for a bit of parkland/open space in the area. However, most of the land, particularly the part on which the school was situated, would be sold off for housing. Not a high-rise. Something that would fit into the neighbourhood a little better. The community would be consulted on what it would be. Then, the city would prepare a request for proposals from the developers to implement something.
And that’s what staff brought forward this week.
It had consulted with the community, drawn up a number of options and submitted them to the community for its consideration. The school, vacant for the last year and a half, was slated for demolition and the property re-zoned to make way for some single family detached and cluster style housing. The process used to achieve this would be a model for other infill developments across the city. There would be conditions, of course, such as conformity with design guidelines, for the successful bidder. Perhaps the community could even appoint someone to represent it on the staff evaluation committee, the committee that would choose the lucky bidder.
Ward 14 Councillor Jared Zaifman thought the ability to “repurpose” the property was “tremendous.” But he had a concern. They shouldn’t impose too stringent conditions. After all, you don’t want to drive away potential developers.
City manager Art Zuidema agreed. “Don’t clog it up,” he warned. This was a fantastic example of how the community and city could work together. The plan would be sensitive to adjacent property. There would be intensification. The needs of an aging population would be met. People could move from their big houses to something more manageable. He couldn’t have been more pleased with the result.
Everyone agreed. They all thought it was great.
No one mourned the loss of a community facility, a community hub.
Nor did anyone at any time through the process think to inform the Society for Learning in Retirement London about the plans. We learned about them, as did others, from the agendas posted on line.
We weren’t particularly surprised. Disappointed, yes, but not surprised. We had thought that a not for profit organization dedicated to the mental and physical fitness of seniors would work well with an aging population in an age-friendly city. Especially in a school that the community had already paid for and, apparently, no longer needed for its young.
But it won’t provide the tax revenue that a whack of new residential units can.