Public boards seek amalgamation of Ontario’s Catholic system

By  Michael Swan, The Catholic Register
  • April 24, 2007
TORONTO - Six Ontario public school boards have passed motions calling for abolition of publicly funded Catholic education and that has Rick Johnson a little upset and embarrassed.
Johnson is president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association — the organization that represents public school trustees to the provincial government — and he has no intention of trying to renegotiate the British North America Act, which guaranteed Ontario’s Catholics a separate school system in 1867. Johnson has spent three years encouraging co-operation between the two largest arms of publicly funded education in Ontario, including co-operation in making school buildings more energy efficient and joint presentations to the Ontario Legislature on issues of common interest with the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association.

There are better uses of public school trustees’ time and political capital, said Johnson.

“Why send your troops into a battle you have absolutely no chance of winning?” asked Johnson, who notes that all three political parties sitting at Queen’s Park support Catholic schools.

The movement to quash the Catholic school system started a year ago when trustees of the Grand Erie District School Board in and around Brantford, Ont., brought a motion to the OPSBA annual general meeting calling for amalgamation of the Catholic and public systems. The motion failed to get the two-thirds majority needed to bring it up again for a vote.

This year the Grand Erie trustees passed its own motion in favour of amalgamation at its Feb. 26 meeting. The board also e-mailed its motion and arguments to every public school trustee in Ontario.

The motion has Johnson upset because it misstates OPSBA policy by claiming the association is “on record as supporting the elimination of a separate, publicly funded, Catholic education system.”

“At no time has OPSBA ever had anything on the books saying, ‛Get rid of the Catholic education system,’  ” said Johnson.

Johnson believes there will be a fuller airing of the issue at this June’s OPSBA meeting, but the majority will vote it down once they have a fuller and more accurate account of the issue than the Brantford trustees are presenting.

Going into an April 18  lobby day at Queen’s Park with the backing of all three provincial parties, the Catholic  trustees’ executive director John Stunt isn’t terribly worried about the motions being passed at public school boards.

“We’re confident that we’re here and we’re strong and we’re here to stay,” he said.

However unlikely it may be that a gaggle of angry, small-town school trustees might lead Ontario to overturn constitutional guarantees to Catholic education, Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board chair Pat Daly was hurt when his friends at Hamilton’s public board passed Grand Erie’s motion in March.

“We were surprised, to begin with. And secondly, very, very disappointed,” said Daly.

The fact that the majority holding office in a responsible order of government could vote to eliminate Catholic schools just emphasized to Daly how much work Catholics have to do educating the public about how and why Catholic schools are different.

“We always need to be vigilant and aware that there are groups in our province that for whatever reason — often out of lack of understanding — simply don’t appreciate the benefit of Catholic education,” he said.

Daly doesn’t think there’s much his board can do about the motion from the public board, but he is anxious to remind them that the guarantees to Catholics in 1867 laid the groundwork for multiculturalism and the modern Canadian sense of tolerance and compromise.

“Our country wouldn’t exist the way we know it today had there not been the guarantees around religious education rights for Catholics, and language rights,” Daly said.

Muttering against the Catholics is driven by declining enrolments, said Johnson.

“This is one of those things that stems from frustration,” he said.

“This kind of call for the end of Catholic schools is cyclical,” said the OCSTA’s Stunt. “It usually can be traced to some other events happening in the environment, like declining enrolment.”

In 54 of Ontario’s 72 school boards student populations declined this year, with those numbers expected to rise. Since 2002-2003 the publicly funded schools have lost a total of 50,000 students, about 2.5 per cent of the total. The only growth is in the suburbs around Toronto.

This leaves the public and Catholic boards fighting over fewer and fewer pupils, in a funding system where the money is attached to student bodies.

Johnson wants the government, trustees, teachers’ unions and parent organizations to sit down and talk seriously about rational ways of delivering education services without eliminating one system or the other.

“We really have to look at sharing more,” he said.

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