City To Sink School Pools?

Former Mayor David Crombie had hoped to negotiate a financing deal to save school’s pools, he told a recent community meeting. Photo by Omar Mosleh.

Two of Midtown Toronto’s pools could be going off the deep end.

The program funding at Hillcrest Community School and Bedford Park Public School’s pools, along with five others, may be axed as part of the city’s cost-cutting efforts.

Former mayor and chair of the Toronto Lands Corporation, a real estate arm of the Toronto District School Board, David Crombie was working on replicating a deal to keep the school board’s pools afloat when the budget axe came swinging down.

Crombie was working on establishing a deal for 33 shared-use school board pools the city currently leases from the school board for just over $6 million annually.

But those efforts were drowned when the city announced it was proposing to close two outdoor pools, five wading pools, and eliminate programming at 7 of the 33 shared-use school board pools.

“We were trying to have the exact same process when the announcement came down,” Crombie said. “It abruptly, unilaterally ruptured the process we’re on.”

While the recent announcement certainly brought pools back into the spotlight, it was a comment by Mayor Rob Ford that really made a splash.

“I think the province and the school board should be funding those pools, not the City of Toronto,” Ford said at a media scrum regarding the school pools.

This, despite the fact as a councillor in Aug. 2010, Ford seconded a motion by Ward 16 councillor Karen Stintz recommending the city enter into discussions with the school board on how to extend the lease.

Currently, the city shares the use of pools in school board facilities and has done so since many of those buildings were constructed. Under the current memorandum of understanding, the city leases and pays for the 33 pool’s operating costs.

The board pays for capital costs, repairs and maintenance, and has access during the day while the city has access during evenings and weekends.

“This was a way-ahead-of-its-time-concept in the city of Toronto, where they used existing assets like a school to put in community facilities,” Crombie said. “It saved the city from having to build other buildings.”

Previously, this made sense, because both the city and school board had equal power in levying property taxes to cover costs.

But the Mike Harris provincial government restricted the school board from levying taxes, which is why an agreement had to be created to figure out who will pay for what.

The mayor may not feel it’s the city’s role to fund school board pools, but pool advocate Karen Pitre, chair of the Toronto Sports Council, says that argument doesn’t hold water.

“People need to come to the conclusion that swimming is an essential skill that needs to be provided,” she said. “We need people to accept the fact that (learning to) swim is an essential service.”

Budget Chief Mike Del Grande obliquely avoided supporting a higher level of government providing funding for Toronto’s school pools, but he did point out two problems if it was proposed.

Special treatment for Toronto?

For one, there’s the historical connection of shared-use pools. But there’s also the perception of Toronto offering perks not given by other municipalities.

“The City of Toronto (public) school board is the only school board in the province that has pools in their schools,” Del Grande said. “So when you look at it from the provincial level, provincial members of parliament outside of Toronto view it with disdain that Toronto wants this special kind of funding that nobody has.”

He pointed out the city’s debt increases annually and for the first time in a decade, the budget will spend less than the previous year. He also said the city doesn’t have a “bottomless pit” of money to throw at programs and must reduce spending to ensure the sustainability of the budget for future years.

“We have all kinds of these niches, free this and free that, throughout the city and those things need to be looked at because we’re not in a position to be able to do that anymore,” he said.

The city is expected to save about $1.1 million by closing the two outdoor pools, five wading pools and programming at seven school board pools as well as associated staff positions.

Crombie says that money is merely a drop in the bucket compared to the ramifications it could have on Toronto families.

“These are not, in the way of the budget, enormous amounts of money,” he said. “But they are of enormous importance to individual families and people.”

Ursula Boylan is a testament to that. The mother of two children at Hillcrest Community School said she was “flabbergasted” when she heard swimming programming at Hillcrest could end on evenings and weekends.

“It’s a vital (service) … Before you make decisions, you have to consult with the communities affected,” she said.

Guy Smagghe, an East York parent, can relate to Boylan’s concerns.  He’s worried about city programming at Earl Beatty Community Centre coming to a close.

While he says the pool at Earl Beatty is not under threat, their community centre is one of 12 where the city plans on eliminating arts, fitness and other recreational programming.

“I do feel betrayed, totally,” said Smagghe, in reference to the Ford administration. “You’re coming in and destroying the basis of our community … These community programs are not gravy.”

Del Grande recognizes swimming pools and community centres are something close to many resident’s hearts. And he accepts that.

“When I look at (the budget) it’s not just strictly dollars and cents for me, because I know there’s people behind the dollars and cents,” he said. “But I also know that if I don’t do what I need to do to help fix our situation, it will be much worse later on.”

Del Grande says the city originally suggested eliminating 35 wading pools rather than five. He rejected that proposal, and staff came back with five pools that were in the worst shape and needed capital repairs.

One issue with wading pools is since they’re aimed toward children, city staff must be on hand for safety. Del Grande has suggested city staff look into some kind of sprinkler activity to replace the wading pools.

“It doesn’t require personnel, but would still accomplish the goal of water recreation,” he said.

The seven school board pools, including Hillcrest’s and Bedfork Park’s, were selected based on low annual visits, high relative cost per visit, the proximity of other nearby indoor pools and the ward’s demographics.

Bedfork Park parent Megan Segsworth was shocked to hear her school’s pool was underused.

“You wake up in the morning on registration day, and within five minutes every class is sold out,” she said. “You can’t get into programs, so the idea that we’re underutilized is just ridiculous.”

Del Grande said for what the city is paying, they’re not getting their money’s worth.

“When we look at cost per swim, and we’re paying $15 or $20 per swim, it makes no sense to us,” he said. “There are private places where you can get more value for the money.”

Crombie believes closures are not necessarily the issue. He says the previous initiative, which closed eight pools but made better use of the remaining 31, was a success because the community deemed the closures viable.

“One of the great advantages of the way we did it before, it was totally public, it was totally engaging communities, it was totally transparent,” he said. “None of that has occurred so far.”

For Pitre, the most important thing is the pools continue to get funded and be used as community assets. And she says the city, school board and province all hold a responsibility.

“We’re going to work to say that every kid should swim, and we all have a responsibility to make that happen,” she said. “We’re saying you all have a role to play, and we’re going to hold you to it.”


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