Francophone school boards struggle with demand
TORONTO - Francophone school boards in southcentral Ontario are complaining they're in an uphill struggle to open new schools to meet a growing demand but aren't getting much help from the province.
They say some of their English counterparts are hoarding real estate despite a steady decline in enrolment, or offering parts of buildings or property instead of putting whole schools up for sale.
As a result, plans for new French-language schools -- including at least two in Toronto -- have been put on hold for years, while existing schools grow increasingly overcrowded, the boards say.
"There's a responsibility for French-language school boards to provide the education," said Ronald Marion, who speaks for Ontario's public francophone boards.
"So if you have the population clamouring for services but you can't give it to them, you're breaching their constitutional right," Marion said.
The Toronto District School Board, which owns many properties and is currently conducting accommodation reviews on a handful of schools, said it follows the process laid out by the Ministry of Education.
Ministry spokesman Gary Wheeler said procedures for the purchase or sale of buildings and properties ensure the process is "fair and transparent."
Though the ministry has tried to facilitate negotiations between the boards, it won't intervene in the discussions, he said.
The dispute has led some parents to file complaints with Ontario's French language services commissioner, accusing the province of violating their right to a francophone education.
The complaints prompted the commission to launch an investigation into the property sales, said spokesman Gyula Kovacs.
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees access to French-language education for students with a parent whose mother tongue is French, who went to a French elementary school, or who has another child enrolled in a French school.
In southcentral Ontario, about two thirds of students entitled to French-language education are enrolled in a French school, according to data compiled by the Viamonde school board.
Enrolment at Viamonde rose more than seven per cent last fall over the previous year, according to the board.
Claire Francoeur, a spokeswoman for the board, said many students simply can't find a spot.
"Our schools are at capacity, even with (portable classrooms)," Francoeur said.
Lynda Rinkenbach, one of the parents behind the complaints, said her 13-year-old son travels two hours each day to reach Toronto's lone French-language Catholic high school.
Many other kids go to English or immersion schools because the French ones are full, she said.
The Conseil scolaire de district catholique Centre-Sud received funding from the Ministry of Education in 2006 to build two new high schools in Toronto.
But the board hasn't been able to find a place to build them, said education director Rejean Sirois.
He is calling for the province to force school boards to sell any properties not used for educational purposes.
He also wants the government to bar boards from selling only parts of lots, since these can't be used by other boards and typically end up going to private buyers.
The province does require school boards to offer any surplus properties to other school boards before putting them on the market.
Seven properties are currently listed for sale by the Toronto District School Board, which has seen enrolment drop by 40,000 students since 2000.
Marion said they've put in a offer for two of the schools. But he fears the board won't obtain government funding in time to buy them.
He wants the province to expedite the review process for funding requests so boards don't miss out on the sales.
"We can't wait," he said.
The ministry said it has limited capital funding and is urgently reviewing requests from two French-language boards.