wave of protests

32 layoffs at school pools recommended
23 pool closings a step closer as board committee backs cutting instructors despite wave of protests
April 11, 2008  Louise Brown  TORONTO STAR

The fight to save school pools took on water last night.

A Toronto District School Board committee recommended laying off 32 swim instructors this June, despite a tidal wave of support yesterday, including rush-hour roadside demonstrations in full swim gear and a rally of hundreds of swimmers and their families last night outside board offices.

The planning and priorities committee said the layoffs will be needed if the board closes 23 pools for lack of funds.

A final decision will be made next Wednesday by the full board on whether to close the pools this June, plus 16 more in 2009. However, many trustees last night said it's time the school board stopped paying for pools with money meant for other programs like English as a Second Language.

Some urged the Ontario government to start funding the boards' 43 pools, which cost $12 million a year to run, while others urged the City of Toronto to let the school board charge a tax to keep pools open.

"It's an absolute travesty that we're even thinking of closing pools, but this could be solved by the city adding a tiny tax of one-half cent per taxpayer," said trustee Irene Atkinson.

Trustee Sheila Cary-Meagher steered pool supporters to Queen's Park. "You should go after every single Liberal MPP in this city for not supporting these pools and … (bombard) them with phone calls and emails."

Wearing swim trunks, goggles and even bikinis on top of street clothes, parents and students waved placards last night outside board headquarters and called on trustees to keep the pools open.

"I understand the funding problems, but I cannot see how having these school pools sit empty will benefit the children of Toronto," said Marjie Chud, president of the North York Aquatic Club, one of whose members was chosen this week to represent Canada at the Beijing Olympics.

Said parent Livia Hunter, "If you think we're making waves tonight, just wait for the tsunami if pools close."

Maggie Runnalls, a Grade 7 student at Glenview Middle School, which is targeted to lose its pool, swims nine times a week in school pools as part of the North York Aquatic Club. "It's so sad to think they might close because swimming is important."

The old City of Toronto built many pools in schools to serve as hubs of downtown neighbourhoods, and paid for them with local school taxes, which were scrapped by the Mike Harris government.

Since then, the Toronto District School Board has scrambled to find the money. While the City of Toronto kicks in $5 million a year toward 35 school pools it shares, the school board says it no longer can find the $12 million a year to keep the other 43 pools running.

Last summer the board warned it would start closing pools this June if Ontario did not start pitching in by Feb. 1, which it did not.

As a result, board chair John Campbell unveiled a hit list last week of 23 school pools to close this June for lack of funding, and another 16 in 2009, a move expected to save about $4 million.

Trustee Josh Matlow says there has been too little public debate on the subject, and will propose at next Wednesday's school board meeting that trustees not close pools until they have explored all funding sources, such as federal sports grants and private sponsors.

It's an idea shared by Parks and Recreation Ontario and the Ontario Heart and Stroke Foundation.

"Public pools are community assets built with taxpayers' dollars, and it shouldn't matter where they sit. We should be exploring ways to keep them open," said Larry Ketcheson, chief executive officer of Parks and Recreation Ontario.