The chair of Hamilton's Catholic school board is urging board staff to flock to Ontario's online budget forum to counter those advocating an end to funding for the Catholic education system.

'It's incumbent on us to never be complacent.' - Pat Daly, Chair, HWCDSB

Pat Daly sent an email Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board (HWCDSB) employees in January.

In it, he encouraged staff to pipe up on "Talk Ontario," a provincial government website designed to get ideas about future budget priorities.

The email — a copy of which was obtained by CBC Hamilton — gave employees talking points in defending Catholic education. Amalgamating school systems into one secular system and eliminating publicly funded Catholic schools. he said, is one of the ideas getting the most attention on the forum.

"Your support is needed to speak up for Catholic education," Daly wrote.

Encourage opposition

"We encourage our community to speak up in opposition to such ideas," he said, linking to a popular thread about the concept.

Pat Daley

Pat Daly, chair of the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board, says it's incumbent on Catholic supporters to "never be complacent." (Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board)

Daly confirmed this week that he sent the email.

He said he has no reason to believe the Ontario government is about to eliminate Catholic education. But when "organized interest groups" speak against funding the Catholic system, he said, "we have an obligation" to speak up.

'It's our responsibility to be aware'

"It's incumbent on us to never be complacent," he said.

"Am I concerned for any particular reason? No. I think like we did in this case, it's our responsibility to be aware."

'There's no way that canceling a duplicate system doesn't save taxpayers money.' - Ken Durkacz, HWDSB teacher

The organization OneSchoolSystem.org says Ontario is "the only province that funds the religious schools of the Catholic faith exclusively."

Daly's talking points to staff included that the cost of amalgamating school systems would outstrip any savings, and that schools would still be funded on a per-pupil basis, so it wouldn't save taxpayer dollars. He also said that Catholic and public school boards already save money each year through sharing services such as transportation.

The call for one school system has been a low rumble in Ontario for years. The Green Party, for example, has called on the Ministry of Education to eliminate Ontario's French and English Catholic boards. But during the 2014 provincial election, no major party pledged to merge school systems.

When such conversations do happen, it's not unusual for Catholic boards to encourage supporters to post in forums or vote in online polls, said Leonard Baak, president OneSchoolSystem.org.

"It's all about optics," he said. "They know the majority of the public wants to see some change. They try to manipulate the optics to make it look like it's not as popular as it is."

 His organization argues unification would save money and would end discriminatory hiring and admissions practices.

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) voted in April 2013 to ask the province to look at one school system. There's been an election since, chair Todd White said, and he's not sure that would pass now.

Amalgamating school systems would mean efficiencies, he said. But public board trustees are hesitant to criticize their Catholic counterparts.

'We have staff that write letters to the editor'

"The real difficulty for trustees around our table is it minimizes the work our Catholic board does in Hamilton," White said. "There is a lot of value in the education they provide."

White said he's never sent out an email encouraging staff to speak a certain way. "We encourage staff to voice their opinions. We have staff that write letters to the editor."

One of those staff is Ken Durkacz, a Sherwood Secondary School English teacher who's written about this exact issue.

He has concerns about the Catholic system's seeming reluctance to embrace LGBTQ-friendly policies. And "there's no way that canceling a duplicate system doesn't save taxpayers money."

The issue was discussed more in Hamilton in the past five years, when HWDSB looked at closing several schools, including Sherwood. But Durkacz doesn't see the province acting on it soon either.

"The truth is that I don't see that there's a politician on this planet who would raise the issue. It's just too divisive," he said. "It's going to take a politician with a great deal of courage to make that move."

samantha.craggs@cbc.ca | @SamCraggsCBC