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Vaughan-area parents enraged as school board votes to close nearly-full elementary school
Roughly 70 parents protest inside York Catholic District School Board headquarters Tuesday night
Feb. 28, 2017
Laura Fraser

Maple-area parents have lost a months-long battle to save their local elementary school, a decision that turned into a heated community debate even before residents threatened to stop the York Catholic District School Board's Tuesday night vote with an injunction.

Our Lady of Peace Catholic Elementary School will close at the end of June, following months of protests and petitions that have drawn the support of members of all three provincial parties.

Board trustees cleared the room immediately after announcing the result of their vote. They left behind roughly 70 parents and a handful of children, who filled the space with their anger.

"We feel that the process has been tainted from the very beginning, amidst the biases and conflicts of interest," Our Lady of Peace parent Joe De Matteis told CBC Toronto. "At the end of the day we're exploring our options."

Those include continuing with their legal action to try to prevent the school's closure.

Parents have continued to question why the school — which is about 97 per cent full — would close when the ones the children will be sent to are actually emptier.

Father John Kelly and Blessed Trinity Catholic elementary schools sit at 48 per cent and 75 per cent full, respectively, according to data from the board. The former will pick up the English students from Our Lady of Peace, while the others will join Blessed Trinity's French immersion program.

Conflicts of interest

The decision means that Father John Kelly will get a boost of about 250 new students — something at the centre of a conflict of an interest allegation levelled against board trustee Teresa Ciaravella by several Our Lady of Peace parents.

Ciaravella owns a daycare called Loving Children and it sits about 600 metres from Father John Kelly. Shortly after CBC Toronto reported on the alleged conflict, the trustee issued a statement saying that she'd sit out the vote Tuesday.

"Naturally, she's biased and it could impact her business if that school closes," Our Lady of Peace parent Jasmine Mousseau told CBC Toronto last week. "We have concerns this bias started long before this process."

Parents at the school now slated for closure say their opinion was discounted before they had a chance to give it. ​

That allegation sits at the heart of a separate internal investigation that had been launched in connection with a note sent by a principal at Blessed Trinity in September. 

That note to staff, dated Sept. 2, 2016, came out three weeks before the consultation process began with parents — and it said that the board had already approved the closure of Our Lady of Peace.

The board's director of education, Patricia Preston, said in a statement on Feb. 17 that the principal had misunderstood, after CBC Toronto reported about the note.

The principal has since apologized for the mistake, according to the board.

Board chairwoman Carol Cotton told CBC Toronto that she and her fellow trustees want parents to understand that while their decision may have been a difficult one, there was no interference.

"I don't quite understand how any decision or outcome could be predetermined when the decision is not made until it comes to this table tonight," she said. "Nobody convened a meeting of us in August and tried to persuade us to vote in one or two particular ways so I can't accept that there was any predetermination of decision."

Closing school cheapest to run: report

Parents at Our Lady of Peace mobilized soon after that when board staff first laid out the recommendation for how to manage the area's declining enrolment.

That initial report said the dropping number of pupils no longer warranted three elementary schools. While the report presented several options, it recommended closing Our Lady of Peace, the oldest of the three schools.

But it would also be the cheapest school to keep running, according to a final report staff released before Tuesday's board meeting. 

Having Our Lady of Peace absorb Father John Kelly's French immersion students and close the latter school would save the board $135,000 in the first year of the decision, staff found.

Father John Kelly, however, is more modern, has air-conditioning and would be in the middle of the new boundaries with Blessed Trinity, staff noted.

Political support

Politicians of all stripes, however, had sided with the frustrated parents at Our Lady of Peace.

Coun. Marilyn Iafrate, who represents the area on Vaughan city council, called on the board to start the process over, noting that the parents felt their input has been ignored.

"I am hoping that the board of trustees will consider ending the process and start a new one with public 'consultation' rather than public 'participation'," she wrote in a statement.

PC Leader Patrick Brown, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Vaughan Liberal MPP and Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca all called on the board to leave Our Lady of Peace open.