Toronto Board bows to pressure from faith groups

Trustees mull permit-fee reprieve on rentals

Massive fee increases to churches and community groups that rent school spaces should be put off until a solution can be found to help those hard-hit by the new rates, says a Toronto board trustee.

In a motion before the monthly board meeting on Wednesday, Trustee Chris Glover is asking that the controversial new permit fees be put on hold until the end of the year while a committee looks at ways to streamline the system and find some cost-savings.

“It gives us a bit of time,” said Glover, who co-chairs the board’s community use of schools advisory committee, which met last Friday.

“We are working on recommendations to find ways to charge permit fees that are fair, but within (the board’s) budget.”

He acknowledged the anger and frustration some groups feel, but said it’s important they be a part of the process because one of the board’s goals is for schools to be community hubs.

The increases were approved by Toronto District School Board trustees as they struggled to balance their budget with a $110 million shortfall. Permits were an easy target, given the board was losing $11 million per year on them.

However, Glover said permit holders “were given insufficient notification of planned categorical permit fee increases” — in some cases, just days.

Some, he added, are grappling with increases of more than 300 per cent.

About 60 people showed up for Friday’s meeting. Glover’s motion, seconded by Trustee Pam Gough, asks that the committee be given time to suggest changes to various permit group categories, and also better use school space.

“If one group is permitting the gym in an elementary school on Sunday, it’s incredibly expensive,” said Glover. “You can’t turn the heat on for just the gym; the entire building is heated. The custodian there is on double time, and needs to get in an hour and a half earlier to turn on the heat, and then clean up afterwards.

“Whereas if you could have a few permit holders in the building, they could divide the cost of the custodian and the utility.”

Church groups are seeing the largest increases because the board eliminated their non-profit status. Some outraged leaders have called it religious discrimination.

Steve James, of the Oakwood Baptist Church, helps run the Vaughan Road gym night — a Friday night drop-in basketball program — that attracts more than 40 teens each week.

The volunteer said the church paid about $3,000 last year, but the fees are now $9,100. It has not restarted the program this year because it can’t afford the new rates.

“It’s not just a program being cancelled; it’s a place these kids can go, where they feel safe, where their parents feel they are safe on a Friday evening” and away from gangs and drugs on the streets, James said.

The program, paid for through fundraising from the church and other donations, is free to youth. The two-and-a-half hour game includes a 15-minute break, and it’s the break that has caused the big increase.

“We talk to the kids about giving them direction in their lives, helping them make the right choices,” said James. “But because we are a faith-based organization, we do it from that perspective. But we are not preaching, we are not having church,” and the program is open to all.

He said the basketball program attracts Catholic, Muslim, Protestant and Hindu teens and those of other religious backgrounds — and some with no interest in religion at all.

He was told that if the church also rented a classroom for the break time, fees would drop to about $5,100. But James feels that having to move the teens out of the gym to a class, get settled in and then go back would take away from the time they have on the basketball court.

James hopes Friday’s meeting will at least spark some discussion on the issue.

Access to team sports is a huge issue right now, as many teachers have withdrawn from extracurricular activities in schools as they fight the province over legislation that forced a wage freeze and cuts to sick day benefits, as well as eliminating their collective bargaining rights.

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