The Hamilton district's French Catholic school board is suing the province for failing to help replace a Hamilton high school it calls "very substandard."

The Conseil scolaire de district catholque Centre-Sud (CSDCCS) announced its bold plan on Tuesday during a news conference at École secondary Académie catholique Mère-Teresa, a school the board has been trying unsuccessfully to replace for over a decade.

'This school is a shame...It's not attractive to come here.' - Nathalie Dufour-Seguin, CSDCCS president

The CSDCCS said it's been requesting funding from the Ministry of Education since the late 1990s, but nothing has come from negotiations. It's currently asking for funding — it did not say how much — to buy a property on Broughton Street East on which to build a new school.  

The current school, on the Mountain, has 234 students who often attend classes in small classrooms, some of which lack windows. The school doesn't have any outdoor space, there's no cafeteria service, or a full-sized gym. In one stairwell the walls are literally crumbling. The makeshift band room (a former office) is a crammed space adjacent to the weight room -- the sounds of both of which can be heard through a thin dividing wall.

"This school is a shame," said Nathalie Dufour-Seguin, the CSDCCS president.

"We're not competitive at all with the English schools in this area. It's not attractive to come here," she said, adding this situation is damaging the reputation of Francophone education in the area.

The Hamilton school is also home to students from Norfolk and Brantford. CSDCCS figures, based on the number of French Catholic elementary students, show there should be at least 800 students at the school. Instead, enrolment is declining. Another worrisome trend for the CSDCCS is that many students who start Grade 9 at Mère-Teresa leave before they graduate. 

Suing the government is "not something we like to do, but we have to have a solution to this problem," Dufour-Seguin said. 

Ontario's Education Minister is set to be served with the civil lawsuit next week, said Mark Power, a lawyer with Heenan Blaikie who is representing the CSDCCS. 

The board's goal is to secure immediate funding. If the province forces the case to trial, it could go before the courts next year, or perhaps the year after, Power said.

"I think what changes as of today, is the fact that whether the Ministry of Education wants to or not, it will have to deal with the Hamilton French Catholic school board situation," said Power. 

At Queen's Park, Education Minister Liz Sandals told Radio-Canada reporters that she's aware of the impending lawsuit, but said school boards must follow the regular process to receive money. Sandals added that Mere-Teresa is not at capacity right now (Power blames that on the school's facilities. He said he believes enrolment would spike as soon as a new school is announced.)

Ministry of Education staff said it has received a funding request from the CSDCCS that is being reviewed, and that it's aware the replacement of Mère-Teresa is the board's top priority. The Ministry said it will announce which projects it will fund by spring of next year.

A Ministry spokesperson said the province has given the CSDCCS about $187 million in capital funding since 2003.  

Principal calls for new school

Mère-Teresa Principal Joseph Allan showed reporters around the school following the news conference, pointing out problem spots. The top complaint from teachers, Allan said, are the classrooms themselves.

Mere-Teresa Principal

Mere-Teresa Principal Joseph Allan says Mere Teresa's classrooms, some of which lack windows, are hard on both teachers and students. (John Rieti/CBC)

"We do notice that kids in the classrooms with no windows are often the ones getting rowdy, quicker, because they don't want to be sitting there for an hour-and-a-half," Allan said, in the doorway of a windowless room where students were studying geography. 

That, or they're falling asleep, he said. 

Throughout the aging school there are other issues, ranging from inconsistent thermostats to an outdated home economics room. Allan says the school, which was originally intended to be an elementary school, is beyond renovating and that there needs to be a brand new Mère-Teresa.

"I've been witnessing three or four new constructions in other spots in our board and not us. So we keep asking 'Why not us? Why not us?'" Allan said. 

"We understand the board has priorities and they have to go get money from the Ministry … but it's shameful to be having to wait this long."