An Ontario French-language public school board is threatening legal action against the Toronto District School Board and the Ontario Ministry of Education for allegedly blocking its purchase of a downtown school - a move they say thwarts the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guaranteeing access to French schooling.
The ministry turned down the Conseil Scolaire Viamonde's request for funds to buy the Essex West school from the TDSB for $8.3-million. The Viamonde wants to buy the school - already on the list of surplus schools for sale by the TDSB - to ease the pressures of overcrowding at French-language public schools in Toronto.
Viamonde's board chairman Ronald Marion said Monday that Section 23 of the Charter guarantees full access to French-language public education.
"That means that where there is a need, the government has the responsibility to provide funds," Mr. Marion said. "The government doesn't really have a choice."
Unlike the TDSB, which has been seeing declining enrolments, Mr. Marion said the demand for French-language public schools is high and waiting lists long. Just last week, Viamonde opened an elementary French school in Halton Region.
"Our schools are at full capacity and Toronto is underserved when it comes to access for French-language schools," he said.
Some francophone school boards say some of their English counterparts are hoarding real estate or offering parts of buildings or property instead of putting whole schools up for sale. 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.
Mike Feenstra, spokesperson for the Ministry of Education, said their hands are tied.
"We let them know that additional capital funding for this property was not available at this time," he said. "Capital funding is currently limited and we have a number of competing demands across the province for support for different projects."
Mr. Feenstra added that the ministry has already given the French-language boards in Toronto more than $211-million to add or replace schools.
But Mr. Marion said Viamonde has been asking the ministry for years to set up a fund for the French-language school boards to buy surplus schools.
"It's not like this is a surprise to them," he said. "We've been very patient, but now it is time for the province to act."
Viamonde said the TDSB also violated Regulation 444 of the Ontario Education Act, which says the French-language public school board has first dibs on purchasing rights every time the TDSB wants to sell surplus schools. That's because of provincial regulations requiring public boards to offer surplus properties to other public boards before putting them on the market.
"Someone from the Ministry of Education contacted the TDSB and told them to stop all negotiations with us," Mr. Marion said, adding that TDSB then picked up negotiations with the other public board, the French-language Catholic school board.
However, TDSB spokesperson Lauren Riley denied Viamonde's allegations.
"We are in compliance with Regulation 444," she said. "At this time we are not in negotiations with either French board. We are waiting for confirmation of funding approval from the Ministry of Education before proceeding."
TDSB and the Ontario Ministry of Education have until March 11 to change their positions after which Mr. Marion said Viamonde would be "forced" into taking them to court for an injunction.
With files from The Canadian Press