Catholic trustee candidates tackle school closures, accountability

In a race that rarely wins headlines, local candidates for Catholic school trustee tackled two things that do – closing schools and restoring trust in trustees.

Just 20 people heard the four candidates speak at a debate last Tuesday night, leaving mostly empty seats in St. Brigid’s Parish Hall. A previous debate was called off early for lack of attendance. But low turnout did not mean a lack of high-stakes issues.

One person asked if the candidates would close Catholic schools with under 550 students, a key threshold for provincial funding.

The Toronto Catholic District School Board has closed more than two dozen schools since 2000, including Corpus Christi in the Beach. But the TCDSB has also opened new schools in that time, thanks in part to the closures.

“No community wants to see their school closed, and we have to maintain our Catholic presence,” said Angela Kennedy, the current trustee for local TCDSB Ward 11 and a former board chair seeking her fifth term as trustee. “So it’s quite a balancing act, because the funding is not there for a school that only has 100 or 150 students.”

She said the board has to fund such schools without provincial help.

Candidate Christmas Sy was chair of St. Catherine elementary’s parent council when the North York school was slated for closure in 2009. At the time, the Ontario government had the TCDSB under direct supervision because the trustees had failed to submit a balanced budget.

“One of the biggest issues that we came across while fighting that battle was that there was no transparency for the community,” Sy said during an earlier debate.

Sy said the small-schools issue is more than a “balancing act” between provincial funding and school capacity It also requires a review of school catchment areas.

Candidate Kevin Morrison took a strong stance against closures.

“It has proven to be a disaster to close any Catholic school in this ward,” said Morrison, who has two daughters at St. John Catholic School on Kingston Road. “We lost Corpus. It was like it tore the heart out of the community in the Beach.”

Candidate Desmond Alvares suggested another way to keep small schools from closing. At Our Lady of Wisdom elementary, Alvares developed the budget for a non-profit, after-school program called ACE (After-Care Enrichment), with affordable music, dance, cooking classes, and a homework club.

Alvares said the school, which once had about 100 students, is actually now over-enrolled – an example of how the issue can be solved by boosting a school’s reputation.

Alvares, Kennedy, and Morrison all support plans for a TCDSB ombudsman.

Alvares said an ombudsman provides anonymity to parents with a complaint, and Kennedy said an ombudsman may be faster than trustees to identify system-wide problems.

Morrison, who came second to Kennedy in the last election after criticizing the 2008 budget failures that put the TCDSB under provincial supervision, said he supports the idea with one caveat – that the ombudsman report to the TCDSB’s educator director as well as trustees.

Sy said an ombudsman should not be necessary so long as trustees do what they are elected to do.

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