School trustees tap ‘tiny, perfect mayor’ to mediate in swimming pool dispute

The Globe and Mail  JAMES BRADSHAW  and  Unnati Gandhi   April 17, 2008

Former mayor David Crombie has agreed to step in and mediate stalled talks over the fate of 39 school swimming pools, 23 of which public school board trustees pushed to the brink of closing last night.

The involvement of the "tiny, perfect mayor" was part of a surprise motion by Toronto District School Board trustees Bruce Davis and Sheila Ward, who pledged that Mr. Crombie, 72, would sit down with the province, the city and the board to work out a deal.

Despite intense pressure from parents and students to delay the June 1 deadline, trustees overwhelmingly voted to give notice of dismissal to more than 30 aquatic staff, setting the stage for 23 of the pools to be drained in June.

The vote on aquatic staff reductions passed 18-4, with most trustees saying that while they would prefer to see the pools remain open, the board cannot continue to fund them.

A pair of motions by trustees Josh Matlow and Chris Bolton to extend the deadline failed to garner enough support to be discussed.

Mr. Davis said Mr. Crombie, who served as mayor from 1972 to 1978, carries a lot of credibility and will make it his mission to find sustainable solutions to keep pools open.

"The parties have all kind of hardened up … and we really needed someone to restart the dialogue," he said.

Mr. Crombie has a long history of mediating controversial issues, with his skills sought out by all levels of government. The onetime Progressive Conservative cabinet minister, was recently appointed by Ottawa to oversee talks on aboriginal land claims in the Caledonia area.

In October, he stepped down as CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute, when the cash-strapped TDSB asked him to chair the Toronto Lands Corporation, whose mandate is to sell surplus land and squeeze extra revenue out of the city's 99 administrative and school sites that are leased to community groups and private academies.

Several parents were left with mixed feelings about the night's proceedings, mixing frustration over the refusal to reconsider closings with cautious optimism about the Crombie initiative.

But June Ntazinda, a parent and financial manager, called the evening "doubly disappointing." Her frustration with the trustees' refusal to reconsider pool closings was compounded by board chair John Campbell's recent refusal to allow her and a group of others with financial and legal expertise to examine the board's finances. She has been told they will be privy only to public information, which she calls "very cursory."

Parent Heidi Wilson, who is one of the lead organizers behind recent high-profile public rallies in support of school pools, was also disappointed with the votes, but said the Crombie motion "gives us all a glimmer of optimism."

The board also voted to send a letter to Mayor David Miller seeking an amendment to an agreement that would see the city pay the operating costs of the pools until 2011. The amendment would reduce the threshold at which the board can ask the city for help with capital repairs on a pool, from $250,000 to $125,000.

Trustee Howard Goodman has spoken passionately about his desire for the pools to remain open, but said he does not take last night's decision as irreversible.

"While I value the pools, if it's a choice between ESL and pools, I hate to have to make that decision, but on a fixed budget, sometimes you do," he said.

Trustees remained adamant that without either receiving the $12-million annually required to maintain the pools, they will not be able to balance their budget, which they are legally obliged to do. But at the same time, they stressed that the issue could be revisited up to the deadline and even beyond if a financial solution becomes viable.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education has maintained its position that the TDSB can afford to keep pools open, without additional funding, if only it did a better job of managing its assets.