School pools on chopping block

Province refuses plea for cash from Toronto board, which may close most of its pools by fall

Feb 06, 2008 Toronto Star   Kerry Gillespie

The province has refused the Toronto school board's plea to fund its pools, so plans are underway to close most of them by September.

To keep water in the pools – used for gym classes, swim lessons and team training – would require an additional $12 million in annual funding, said Toronto District School Board chair John Campbell.

The province won't save the 78 pools because they're unique to Toronto and the funding formula can't deal with that, the education minister said yesterday.

"As a citizen of Toronto, I don't want to see those pools closed but, at the same time, I have to recognize as the minister that they are the responsibility of this community," Kathleen Wynne said. "There isn't specific provincial money for the pools."

This is the second time in two weeks the province has refused to fund a request from the Toronto board. Last week, the premier said he wouldn't fund the board's planned Africentric school, but sources say the two decisions are unrelated.

Last summer, the board told the province that if, by Feb. 1, it didn't commit to paying for the pools, the board would close them.

The province's resounding "no" has led the board to pin its final hopes on an unlikely saviour: the cash-strapped city.

"If the city is prepared to provide some assistance, then we'll be able to carry on. Otherwise, we're going to have to get out of the business of operating pools," Campbell said.

It costs the board $17 million a year to keep the pools open, he said. The board already gets $5 million from the city, which runs parks and recreation programs in 35 pools.

For years, the board has been covering the remaining costs by short-changing new immigrant students by using their ESL funding to pay for pools, he said. "We just can not afford to keep doing that."

The board and the city will meet to talk about pools next week, but Toronto has its own budget woes and isn't prepared to pay another $12 million.

"Let's be honest about who owns the Toronto District School Board or any other school board in this province, it's the province … (the pools) are their assets," city budget chief Shelley Carroll said.

The budget committee has already recommended increasing the city's pool funding by $360,000, for a total of $6 million, Carroll said.

But that may not be enough to keep even those 35 pools open.

If the city wants to keep using the pools, it will have to start covering the costs of repairs, not just operation and maintenance, as the city has done in the past, Campbell said.

"It's not our asset, so it's kind of hard to say we're going to fix them with property taxes. But you won't own them at the end of the day," Carroll said.

Toronto residents need to take the fight to save their pools to Queen's Park and tell politicians there that they can't ignore the pools until they're in such bad condition no one wants them, Carroll said. "We're already under pressure from our swim program users that they register to swim in a pool for nine weeks and sometimes three out of those nine lessons are delivered in that pool, … because of poor capital repair."

Nearly every year since the Mike Harris government changed the school funding formula, the spectre of closing Toronto's school pools has been raised.

A few have closed, but most, after much pleading from parents, have not. At the last minute, funding has been found.

Not this time, Campbell said. "The deficit is very significant."

Without a promise of $12 million, the board will start closing the pools in June and most could be closed by September, Campbell said. Three pools for special education programs would be kept open.

Pools in schools are popular, but they aren't an education priority.

"Could we do without them? Yes." Campbell said.

Will Torontonians accept that?

"I was around the school board the last time we suggested (closing them). I think Mr. Campbell is going to be surprised about the level of passion (around the pools)," said Carroll, once a school trustee.