Crombie asked to save pools

Toronto Star April 17, 2008 Kristin Rushowy  EDUCATION REPORTER

Toronto's public board is turning to former mayor David Crombie in the hope he can broker a deal to keep school pools afloat.

At a meeting last night, Toronto District School Board trustees agreed to ask Crombie to convene a meeting with federal, provincial, city and board representatives to secure long-term funding to keep the pools open.

Crombie is head of the school board's arm's-length Toronto Land Corp., which manages and sells board properties. He could not be reached for comment last night.

Without funding, the board has already decided to shut 23 pools this June, saving $4 million. Trustees also voted last night to give 32 swim instructors layoff notices.

A motion to reopen the pool closing debate failed.

"All parties have become rigid," said trustee Bruce Davis, who proposed Crombie, along with trustee Sheila Ward. Crombie may be able to develop new options, he added. "He was mayor when many of these pools were built."

Trustee Gerri Gershon welcomed the move, saying "a fresh set of eyes" might just be what's needed to solve the problem.

Trustee Josh Matlow said the board is sending Crombie to the table when it has already made decisions about the future of the pools.

"It is not going to the table in good faith," he said. Not reopening the pool debate "is a slap in the face to parents, students and residents who expect us to be leaders."

Pool supporters vowed last night to keep up the fight, despite the swim staff layoffs.

"It's really stupid," said 17-year-old Catherine Smith of North Toronto Secondary. "Swimming is such an important part of school and everyone is always telling us to exercise, exercise, exercise."

She said she worries about the future of swim teams if there aren't as many pools. "It's not over yet," she said, adding she and other students are going to keep up the pressure on the board and province.

Trustees who voted to reopen the debate received applause from the public gallery, although there wasn't enough support to do so.

About 50 supporters held a rally outside board headquarters on Yonge St., north of Sheppard Ave., waving placards and receiving honks of support from motorists.

Trustee Cathy Dandy said some information about the pools from board staff is inaccurate and she has been fighting to get it corrected.

Five pools in her ward are affected and she said their usage rates are much higher than those stated by the board. Schools such as Riverdale Collegiate, which runs a "fabulous swim program," won't be able to run a proper physical education program without a pool.

Trustee Howard Goodman said if funds are found for the pools, the aquatic staff could be rehired, but it was necessary to get the layoff notices out now.

School pools have been on the chopping block many times since the province took away boards' taxation powers and refused to provide additional funding for them.

But this time, with both the province and city firm that no additional financial help will come for the pools, trustees decided they are a cost the board can no longer bear.

The board plans to close 39 pools in the next two years. It has been siphoning funds from other areas to fund them.

Premier Dalton McGuinty has said the Toronto board must make some "difficult decisions" when it comes to pools.

"This government is turning into the Tories," said trustee Maria Rodrigues, referring to the funding issues the board first faced under the Mike Harris Conservatives and continues to grapple with. "There is no difference."

– With files from Rob Ferguson