Pool money should be public: Crombie

Ex-mayor cites importance of school swim programs in Depression-era T.O.
Toronto Star April 19, 2008  Louise Brown

If they mattered enough to be built in the middle of the Great Depression, Toronto's school pools deserve another re-think before being drained now for lack of funds, says former mayor David Crombie.

Also, any long-term financial lifeline should come largely from public – not private – coffers, says Crombie, who has agreed to spearhead the quest for ways to keep 39 school pools open.

"Before people rush to say, `Oh, that old program in Toronto? Who cares about it?' we should look at why people thought pools in schools were useful in the first place," said Crombie, who said he is going to dig back into city history to see why pools were built in schools.

"I think it had to do with the dream that the public could build public spaces which rich and poor could enjoy – with libraries and auditoriums and pools – that were more than just schools; they were centres for community resources," said Crombie, who learned to swim at Humberside Collegiate.

"No one has ever said we shouldn't have these pools; they're important for safety and teaching good social habits and they're absolutely wonderful for the disabled and for older people," said the former Conservative MP, who said he hopes to find a funding solution by the end of June.

Historically, Toronto built dozens of pools in schools and paid for them through local school taxes. But when the Mike Harris government changed the way schools are funded in 1998, he took away local school boards' taxing powers and refused to keep paying for some of the local programs these taxes used to fund – such as pools and outdoor education centres.

Now, after 10 years of scrambling to run pools with money meant for other programs, the Toronto District School Board has said it will close 23 of the 39 school pools this June, but has tapped Crombie to search for other sources of funding to cover the $12 million tab.

Already some trustees and parents are approaching corporations and community groups for funding.

But Crombie said he will be looking to persuade various levels of government to take responsibility for the bulk of funding.

"We're looking for sustainable long-term solutions, and normally that means public money, but that also means governments have to decide this is what they want," Crombie said yesterday in an interview.

Crombie said it's surprising the city cannot find a way to pay for something it was able to find dollars to build in the Depression.

"Other cities like Seattle are doing creative things to make schools the centre of the community," he said, "so let's see how they're doing this before we close the pools here."