Why a group of strangers took the plunge to save school pools

JAMES BRADSHAW Globe and Mail April 15, 2008
With a report from James Rusk
The struggle to save 39 of Toronto's public school pools hinges on a wide coalition that began to form when a single parents association put out word of the impending closings.

Seven weeks ago, a group of strangers accepted an invitation posted in the Allenby Junior Public School association's newsletter to come and discuss how to save the swimming pool.

They laid the foundation of what has become an increasingly forceful lobby group. Seasoned activists they are not, with most claiming never to have attended a rally, let alone organized one.

But what began as one school's cry of indignation has spawned letter-writing campaigns, public rallies and demands for closer scrutiny of the Toronto District School Board itself.  The Allenby group has built support from schools and parents across the city, but much of the impetus still stems from parents at this K-6 school on the southern edge of the Lawrence Park neighbourhood that was the first Toronto school to offer a French Immersion program.

Heidi Wilson, one of the core members, said her role in the campaign began when she read about the closings in the newsletter and decided to write to several elected officials, something she had never done before.

"We're all new to this, we're all neophytes. And even though there has been a history to this issue, as individuals none of us has the [savvy] or the experience in working with the media, the TDSB or the city," she said.

"We're figuring this out as we go, and we're just trying to use good common sense."

Ms. Wilson, a market researcher and former teacher with a PhD in education, said she was outraged to discover the scope of the planned closings, kindling an instinct to defend the pools.

"This is for my children, who are yet to become swimmers because neither one of them are old enough to swim in the school system yet," she said of her five-year-old son and two-year-old daughter.

"And secondly … we're losing our property, so if we don't step in and take action now, then this fight will continue. It won't be about pools next year, but the same argument will hold until they go and correct the funding formula."

Ms. Wilson sides with trustees who say the board cannot find the $12-million in operating expenses to keep the pools open unless the city and province provide extra help on top of the amount dictated by the provincial education funding formula, which does not make provisions for pools.

But members of the group do not move in lockstep with the board.

On Friday, fellow activist June Ntazinda, an investment manager, will begin a forensic audit of the board's finances with a team of accountants. Ms. Wilson has asked board Chairman John Campbell for a detailed list of all meetings he has held about the pools, including dates and the names of any board, city or provincial officials present.

As for public advocacy, the group has helped to organize a series of events and Ms. Wilson said they plan to have another public rally in the next two to three weeks, as well as a strong presence at tomorrow's final board vote on pool closings.
Jessica Monk, who chairs the Allenby parents association, said she hopes the spirit of collaboration will catch on with the board, city and province, all of whom appear to be at a standstill.

"The next step is to approach the provincial government and the city – because really what we're asking for is sustainable funding for the pools, not just to save them for one year. We've been through that so many times," she said.

Mayor David Miller has cited the millions the city already contributes to school pools and calls pool funding a provincial issue. The provincial education ministry has insisted that the board has enough flexibility in its budget to choose priorities.
"This is a community issue that needs to be addressed and I hope the TDSB will go back and look at its priorities," said Education Minister Kathleen Wynne when asked about pools yesterday in the legislature.

So far, the minister has been reluctant to get involved in the issue, even though she knows that it tugs at the heartstrings of a group of parents who have supported the Liberals electorally.

She is faced with trying to strike a balance between the need to deal with a number of important problems that the province perceives at the TDSB, such as governance, and the political pressure from parents who want pools to stay open.
"The real unknown is the parents and the legacy this issue could have for the next election," one Queen's Park source said.