First published in our 2019 Real Estate issue, these two articles present two differing opinions about the development of sports facilities at Immaculata High School in Old Ottawa East.
The first, written by a resident who lives near the school, argues the changes as bad for the neighbourhood; the second, written by the Ottawa Catholic School board’s communication manager, argues the project and points to the benefits to students and athletes.
The Ottawa Catholic School Board gave away too much
It’s never a good feeling being locked out of your own schoolyard. What makes it even harder is that the fences, padlocks, and 24-hour surveillance signs at Immaculata High School in Old Ottawa East are the result of a first-of-its-kind deal in Ottawa: one between a school board and a private partner that is licensed to make money renting out a school field on a per-hour basis outside school hours.
For years, schools have rented their gyms and fields to Brownies, Cubs, and community groups for a reasonable fee. But this deal is quite different.
Under the terms of the 21-year agreement, the Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB) has licensed the Immaculata field to an adult-league soccer field rental company in exchange for that company upgrading and maintaining the field for free. And what do the students get? On school days until 6 p.m. and for occasional special events outside those hours, students can use their field. And it’s a nice one: a bright green artificial turf field with pristine white lines.
In late February 2018, rumours started swirling through Old Ottawa East about the coming changes. And then came the confirmation that the OCSB had already made a deal — without consulting the community. Neighbours watched in dismay as the company’s contractor ripped up the grass last spring and installed artificial turf, lights, and fencing. The long side of the playing field butts against streets that dead-end at its edge, and several residents can reach out from their porches to touch the fence, which is a few feet from the track that encircles the field.
The company’s plan is to run three simultaneous hour-long games of seven-on-seven adult soccer played across the width of the field from 6 p.m. until 11 p.m. on weeknights, as well as all weekend. That’s 42 players every hour, three refs, and lots of whistles. High-intensity, rip-roaring fun — but shoehorned into the wrong space.
While the field was under construction, city staff belatedly realized that the school board needed a new site-plan agreement, and in an attempt to address residents’ concerns, staff proposed that the lights on the field be turned off at 9 p.m. on weeknights and 10 p.m. on weekends. This past August, the city’s planning committee reviewed and approved the site-plan agreement, including the earlier lights-out requirement.
Defiant and unrepentant, the school board instructed the prominent law firm handling this deal for them to fight the restriction on hours. The appeal is ongoing, scheduled to be heard this summer, and in the meantime the lights can stay on until 11 o’clock every night.
Two Old Ottawa East residents have filed separate complaints on the Immaculata field with the office of the provincial ombudsperson. One complaint alleges the board may have violated its own procurement policy in making the deal. The second complaint alleges the board used the Community Hubs Capital Fund to finance the track without the public consultation and transparent process required to access this provincial seed money.
A good public school is a hub where students and neighbours gather, sometimes spontaneously, and is sensitive to its neighbourhood. The OCSB is now reviled by some in the community. I don’t feel that blood-boiling anger — just the sadness and disappointment one experiences when betrayed by an old friend. The Immaculata mantra when my three kids went there was “respect.” That seems ironic to me now.
If you live close to an Ottawa high school, beware. If you are a Catholic ratepayer — I’m not anymore — you may want to question your trustee. If you live in or visit Old Ottawa East, or if you’re a future, current, or former Immaculata student who likes to play sports in your schoolyard outside school hours without paying a private company, you’re out of luck.
Theresa Ann Wallace is a freelance writer whose children attended Immaculata High School.
Improving schools to enhance fitness and learning
Where there was only an older-style sports field on the property of Immaculata High School on Main Street, there is now a state-of-the-art illuminated artificial-turf field and rubberized track that extend the season for hundreds of students, coaches, and families. The new facility also has times available for community use.
The project started in spring 2017, when Ottawa Catholic School Board staff recognized that partnering with the soccer organization Ottawa Footy Sevens was an opportunity to provide enhancements to the field on school property. All costs of the field were covered by the Footy Sevens in exchange for the right to use the field after school. There was no cost to the board or to city taxpayers.
To further extend the use of the field, low-spill lights (shown in this photograph) were installed that exceed city standards and make it accessible earlier in the spring and later in the fall. Staff consulted with Ottawa City planning department and were informed that the use of the school athletic field was not changing, therefore a site-plan approval was not needed. The board proceeded with the understanding that the field is similar to other sports fields in other areas of the city, including in urban and suburban settings, and operates under the same set of bylaws as all similar fields for noise and lighting. As planned and pictured, lights illuminate the field without spillage onto neighbouring properties. The improvement to a rubberized track was funded by the board as an eligible expenditure under Ministry of Education regulations — and the teachers and students are thrilled to have their old stone-dust track replaced with a more modern track.
There were nearby residents with concerns. Board staff listened to the neighbours’ feedback and looked for ways to mitigate their concerns. Shrubbery was added to provide screening and noise abatement. The fenceline was modified, free access to the track was granted (even when the field was in use), electronic whistles were employed to decrease noise, side entrances were closed to keep traffic off side streets, and investments were made to further enhance the lighting. Immaculata School Council co-chair Tanya Smith, representing parent voices, wrote a letter of support to the board in March 2018. In it, she said: “On behalf of the Immaculata School Council we wanted to ensure our voice was part of the conversation. We fully support the initiative and believe it will only prove to be an amazing benefit to our students and our community in the years ahead.”
In another letter of support sent to the board in the spring of 2018, Ben Seaman, an Immaculata physical education teacher and coach wrote: “Coaches are really looking forward to teaching on a turf field and to be able to cross-train athletes, regardless of sport, on a proper track. What we are most excited about, though, is the overwhelming positive reaction from our students.”
Seaman’s letter quoted Immaculata student and athlete Ben Robinson: “This is a game changer for our track-and-field program. I am so pumped about next season! I will be able to do all my training here at school rather than have to bus to other facilities.”
In late March and early April of 2018, board staff consulted with, and received input from, various stakeholder groups; many in the community are in support of the enhancements. The school, the board, and the Footy Seven staff used a variety of means — publications, presentations, meetings, one-on-one discussions, emails, and phone calls — to provide opportunities for input in 2018. Delegations of neighbours provided their input to the Board of Trustees and board staff at two public meetings.
We recognize that a small group view the school field as a public park and an extension of their properties. The partnership between the board and the Footy Sevens was an opportunity to enhance school property and has benefited athletes as well as the community. We are proud of this beneficial partnership with the Footy Sevens and are glad that the school’s only athletic field is now safe, improved, and accessible to our school community as well as the wider community.
Mardi de Kemp is the Ottawa Catholic School Board’s communications manager.