For sale signs abound on ex-schools

These days, Penny Allen is more like a real estate agent than an administrator of a public school board.

The Greater Essex County District School Board has five former school sites for sale throughout Windsor and Essex County. Benson, in the city’s west end, will be on the market in 2014. Ruthven could follow, depending on the result of an accommodation study that’s underway.

“This is way more than normal,” said Allen, the board’s business superintendent.

In addition to preparing budgets and overseeing spending, it’s her job to see that properties get appraised, rezoned and sold to the highest bidder.

“I feel like I’m in the real estate business,” she said.

“I’m in the same boat,” said Mario Iatonna, Allen’s counterpart at the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board.

The Catholic board has three properties currently up for sale, and three more that will be on the market in 90 days or less if various levels of government aren’t interested in them first.

“We have surplus schools because enrolment is down,” said Iatonna. “Unfortunately, school buildings are difficult to sell.”

At the Catholic board, the former St. Anne high school building in Tecumseh has been for sale for five years. St. Bernard and Our Lady of Lourdes, both in Windsor, join it on the real estate listings.

More recently, St. Theresa in Amherstburg, and St. Alexander and Immaculate Conception in Windsor have all been closed and are currently being offered to a provincially legislated list of preferred buyers. The “pecking order,” as Allen dubs it, includes other area school boards, St. Clair College, the University of Windsor, the municipality where the property is located, provincial agencies and, finally, the federal government.

If none of them bite, the board is free to put them up for sale publicly.

Other boards used to be quicker to pick up vacant schools even if they didn’t have an immediate plan for them. That was years ago when boards had to sell them to the pecking order for $1, Allen said. The legislation changed to allow sales at fair market value.

Earlier this week, Allen was before Kingsville town council trying to get a two-acre site in former Gosfield South Township rezoned in preparation for sale. The former Inman school site has been an albatross around the public board’s neck since the rural school closed in 1969.

Unable to sell the two-acre site, the board used it for various purposes over the decades. Until it was razed in 2004, the building was used for administrative offices and later, as a warehouse that included the storage of PCB-laden light ballasts pulled out of schools elsewhere. The board teamed up with Cogeco to erect a telecommunications tower at the site, but fibre-optic technology rendered that use of the property obsolete, too.

The board has offered the property to the Catholic and French boards, the town and government agencies numerous times, Allen said. “Every time we’d run out of a use for it, we’d declare it surplus and offer it up.”

With houses on the other three corners of Inman Sideroad and County Road 34, the institution-zoned property should be rezoned residential, Allen argues. But with it abutting a beef cattle farm, the town has rezoned the property agricultural.

“I’ve never gone to the OMB before,” Allen said Thursday, considering an appeal of Kingville’s zoning decision.

Also up for sale are Concord, Maidstone, Harrow Jr. and Oakwood.

Oakwood is “a very complicated property,” Allen said. It’s attached to a city-owned community centre and abuts a protected woodlot. The school board also has a duck sanctuary on the site.

Allen said the board was worried when plans for the new international crossing showed the Windsor-Essex Parkway running alongside Oakwood. Emotions turned to relief, then glee, when the board discovered the road would be underground and covered in parkland.

“I think it could increase the value of Oakwood.”

Usually the board tries to sell a property as quickly as possible to cut down the costs associated with keeping a building vacant, Allen said. Electricity is kept on to power security alarms and some heat is needed to keep pipes from freezing. “It’s like you’re just throwing money away.”

By law, proceeds from sales goes into a capital reserve fund the board uses to pay for new schools, additions or major renovations like a new roof. The public board currently has $1.2 million in that fund, Allen said.

“That’s why we try to get the best value for the properties, because we can turn around and invest that in our schools.”

The public board has sold six former schools since the city and county public school boards amalgamated in 1998. Once the kinks of amalgamation were smoothed out, the new board sold four schools in 2000.

Edith Cavell was sold to a developer who turned it into condos. The playground became residential building lots.

Dowswell school in Essex became a senior’s centre.

A three-room schoolhouse in Paquette Corners, former SS No. 4, was an easy sell. So was Ridge Campus on Talbot Street in Leamington.

“The easiest schools to sell are those that are in town, have a fair amount of property and are all on one floor,” Allen explained.

The last schools sold by the public board were Ada C. Richards in 2010 and Puce in 2008.


Penny Allen, business superintendent of the Greater Essex County District School Board is shown here Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012, at Oakwood Public, one of several school properties which will soon be listed for sale. (NICK BRANCACCIO/The Windsor Star)

Penny Allen, business superintendent of the Greater Essex County District School Board is shown here Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012, at Oakwood Public, one of several school properties which will soon be listed for sale. (NICK BRANCACCIO/The Windsor Star)

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