Synchronized protest

Parents synchronize efforts to protest pool closings
Moms and dads – some in swim goggles – plan to pack meeting, in a multiple-stage bid to keep the pools open

JAMES BRADSHAW   Globe and Mail  April 10, 2008

Trustees of Canada's largest public school board are bracing for an onslaught of outraged parents at tonight's board meeting as they take a further step toward closing 23 school swimming pools this year and a further 16 next year.

Parents have already organized sidewalk rallies at schools – including demonstrators dressed in swimwear – and they aren't precluding at least a few pairs of goggles at the meeting, where they plan to urge trustees to work with the city and province to find the $12-million needed annually to sustain the pools.

Trustees will vote tonight on a reduction in aquatic staff that would coincide with fewer operating pools before staging their final vote on Wednesday.

The chairman of the Toronto District School Board says the board cannot continue to divert money from other priorities to support the pools. The province says the board has chosen how to spend its funds, and no new money is coming. And the city says it already pays for other pools and points back to the province.

"We're saying as citizens simply that it's unacceptable to close our pools. End of story. We're the taxpayers, we're the citizens, we're the users, that's not an option. Figure something else out," said parent Livia Hunter, who is one of 10 parents giving deputations at tonight meeting.

Ms. Hunter called tonight's rally the first in a multiple-stage approach and said some parents are frustrated enough to consider voting against trustees who favoured the closings in the next election, though their positions remain hazy. Board chair John Campbell said a June of 2007 preliminary vote was not recorded but passed "easily and without a lot of discussion."

"Our top priority is improving educational outcomes. Physical education is also important, but there are other ways to deliver physical education," he said.

Parents agree the solution likely lies in a collaborative effort between the board, city and province, all of which have thus far deflected responsibility by citing their own challenges.

"I think we do need to collaborate and not blame," said Marjie Chud, president of the North York Aquatic Club, who cancelled tonight's programs to allow the club to attend the meeting. "I think the solution lies in inviting us, the stakeholders, to get involved in creating solutions."

But Mr. Campbell said he made the situation clear to city and provincial authorities and talks have stalled, adding that a proposal to support pools through a city tax levy was flatly rejected.

Provincial Education Minister Kathleen Wynne showed no sign of budging yesterday and insisted her government has helped the board as much as it can, increasing its annual funding by $360-million and making some grants flexible.

Opposition education critic Joyce Savoline said she does not expect the government to shoulder the entire bill, but that it is in the provincial interest to help support physical activity, especially given efforts Ms. Wynne spearheaded to keep pools open in 2002, when she was a school board trustee.

"Given that she understood the value of that partnership six years ago, I can't imagine why now, because she's the minister, that partnership is no longer of value. … That's just passing the buck, really."

Mayor David Miller said the city has done its part by maintaining the 34 pools the city uses, and the way to save the rest is to include pools in provincial calculations.

Byron McDonald, a parent, top swimming coach and former Olympian, said the parent groups have considerable resolve and he expects the battle for the pools to continue in the coming weeks.

"I think people realize that nothing's going to change [tonight]," he said, comparing the rally to a shot across a ship's bow.

"I think this is the beginning of a protracted awareness campaign."

June Ntazinda, parent of two and president and CEO of I3 Advisors Inc., said all three bodies are "misbehaving very badly" and accused the board of mismanaging its assets. She hopes to prompt a forensic audit on the board's finances to prove it has the capability to finance the pools and its other priorities.