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Ontario school boards intensify spending war to lure students, maintain funding

Children get on a school bus in Toronto on Sept. 15, 2016. The Toronto Catholic District School Board is busing more than 7,000 students who are deemed 'non-qualifying,' meaning they are not entitled to transportation because they live less than 1.5 kilometres from the school, at a cost of $1.1-million.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

From busing students who do not qualify for transportation services to beautifying front lawns, Ontario school boards are spending millions of dollars as they compete to lure families and maintain their provincial funding.

A Globe and Mail analysis this week revealed that English-language Catholic boards in the province have loosened enrolment criteria and are increasingly admitting children to their elementary schools regardless of faith.

For its part, the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) is busing more than 7,000 students who are deemed "non-qualifying," meaning they are not entitled to transportation because they live less than 1.5 kilometres from the school, at a cost of $1.1-million, partly in fear of losing them to public schools closer to home, according to a report prepared by board staff late last year. And, in the most recent academic year, the Peel District School Board, west of Toronto, spent $1.3-million to improve curb appeal at some of its high schools after research showed it would attract and retain students.

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Read more: In push for funding, Ontario's Catholic school boards enrolling more non-Catholics

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The money went toward signs, parking areas, landscaping and playing fields that were visible from the roadway.

Other districts are spending money on marketing and specialized sports programs to attract families.

"I believe money being spent for advertising by school boards for the purpose of recruiting students is an unnecessary and wasteful use of education dollars," said John Hendry, a long-time trustee at the Waterloo Region District School Board. "The government seems to turn a blind eye to the practice of advertising to simply lure students from one system to another."

Ontario is in a unique position. Four distinct publicly funded systems – francophone public, francophone Catholic, English Catholic and English public – are present in every corner of the province and all draw from the same pool of students. Declining birth rates have forced them to compete.

Premier Kathleen Wynne was not available on Tuesday for comment, a spokeswoman said. At a recent town hall meeting in Thunder Bay, Ms. Wynne criticized school boards' use of public funds to compete for students.

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"I think it is absolutely wrong that the Catholic system, the English system, the French system, would be advertising to take students from the other systems," Ms. Wynne said in response to a question on competition for students and ending public funding for religious schools. "I think it's something that shouldn't happen."

Board staff at the TCDSB, where 7,030 "non-qualifying" children receive transportation services, outlined student retention as a reason. "If the service were to be discontinued," the report stated, "there is a potential risk of losing approximately 60 per cent of these students – due to student addresses being in closer geographic proximity to [Toronto District School Board] schools versus TCDSB schools."

Jo-Ann Davis, a school trustee who is the TCDSB's representative on the consortium that delivers school-bus service to the Catholic and public boards in Toronto, said her board was not doing anything inappropriate.

"I think competition is good in business and I think it's good in education," she said. "I think one of the great things about the Ontario school system is that we have competition and all boards need to be making sure that they're providing an excellent education to their students because they know that if they don't, there are other options out there."

But Ken Lister, a trustee with the TDSB, said this an example of the measures boards are taking to get parents and students to choose their schools. "This is a beginning of a slippery slope. … It's just going to lead to increased costs down the road for everybody."

The Globe's analysis found the province's English-language Catholic boards have quietly been opening up elementary-school enrolment over the past several years and had seen a gradual increase year over year of students who were non-Catholic or of an unknown religious identity at their schools. In some boards, more than a quarter of elementary-school students and their parents or guardians did not have a baptismal certificate, according to figures obtained through Freedom of Information requests.

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Laurie French, president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, said that as boards open up their enrolment criteria, it "exaggerates the competitive environment."

"The current competitive environment that we see is having a negative impact on programming and supports that are available in our boards. That's clear," she said.

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