Their message was loud and clear: keep open five local high schools currently being examined as part of the Toronto Catholic District School Board's (TCDSB) accommodation review process.
Hundreds of past and present students, parents, educators and community members packed the gymnasium at Neil McNeil Catholic Secondary School Thursday, Jan. 7, to let local trustees and school board staff members know that they won't let go of Neil McNeil, Notre Dame, Jean Vanier, Cardinal Newman and St. Patrick's high schools without a fight.
Last week's public consultation was the third one to look at the future of the five east end Catholic secondary schools.
Four of the local schools in question are oversubscribed, while St. Patrick's, near Danforth and Greenwood avenues, is well below its capacity with enrollment projected to further decline in the years to come.
In this particular grouping, the TCDSB is exploring three main options: relocate Notre Dame students to St. Patrick's; relocate Neil McNeil students to St. Patrick's and/or relocate Notre Dame students to Neil McNeil; or provide a new program focus at St. Patrick's.
Since the issue came to light last fall, local stakeholders have passionately expressed their desire to go with the third option of investing in bettering St. Patrick's. Some of the possibilities could include refocusing the school into a centre for the arts, implementing a kindergarten to Grade 12 (K-12) French immersion program or even offering year-round school for students there from K-12.
All of these ideas require a financial commitment from the TCDSB, which currently has limited or no additional funding from Ontario's Ministry of Education, especially for capital projects.
Supporters of Neil McNeil were especially incensed last Thursday because they feel the school board is ignoring an agreement with the Spiritan Congregation to make every effort possible to maintain the facility in the Victoria Park Avenue and Kingston Road area as a Catholic boys high schoolfor the next 50 years. That agreement is a clause in the June 2009 purchase agreement between the TCDSB and the Spiritan order.
Nicole Waldron, co-chair of Neil McNeil Accommodation Review Committee (ARC), said at the meeting that relocating her son's high school would cause huge disruptions for more than 800 local families. Further, she highlighted that the TCDSB recently assured parents that maintaining single-gender schools was a priority, one she feels would be compromised if Neil McNeil were to be moved.
Waldron also said that all of the affected schools have come up with the same basic solution: to look at local high schools and consider how to improve them and keep them open.
"You are facing some precedent-setting decisions," she said to the three school trustees in attendance at the meeting, adding that the best efforts must be made to highlight the programs available at St. Patrick's.
During the meeting, representatives from each school were given time to have their say as to why their facility is a valued community resource that should be maintained.
Jim Barnes, a representative from Cardinal Newman, said that his school community as well as that of Scarborough's Jean Vanier, is concerned about the effects of enforcing tighter enrollment boundaries. He also underlined that the board should work to establish new and improved programming at St. Patrick's.
Board chair and Ward 11 (East York/Toronto) Trustee Angela Kennedy assured that she'd be pushing to improve St. Patrick's when she meets with her fellow trustees and school board staff.
"I did get a strong message. We're not interested in closing any schools in this community," she said.
John Del Grande, the trustee for Ward 7 (Scarborough/North York), said that he's been involved in a few ARCs over the years and realized it's an emotional process but feels that in this case solutions can come from within.
Del Grande further added that the reality of school overcrowding, aging facilities and lack of money for rebuilding new schools are sobering facts that must also be considered.
Scarborough's Ward 12 Trustee Paul Crawford, who represents Neil McNeil, encouraged attendees to make their opinions known by writing to their local trustees, and even their councillors and MPPs.
Seemingly under attack by many in attendance, Kennedy, Del Grande and Crawford all said that they weren't the ones who came up with the options for the local high schools as the board has been supervised by the province for the last two years due to the inability to balance its budget, which was further exacerbated by recent allegations of trustee misspending.
The next local ARC meeting is set to take place Monday, Feb. 8 at St. Patrick Catholic Secondary School, 49 Felstead Ave., which is near Greenwood and Danforth avenues.