Parents angry over threat to EMSB schools, say building swap could be the answer

Parents from Rivière-des-Prairies say if the EMSB swaps Lester B. Pearson High School for Jean Grou high school, which is part of a French-language board, everyone will be happy.

'The courts are on our side': EMSB vice-chair Joe Ortona says it's time to fight back

About 50 people demonstrated outside the English Montreal School Board's headquarters before the meeting began Monday night. (Antoni Nerestant/CBC)

Parents held up signs and chanted "save our schools" on the steps of the English Montreal School Board's headquarters before a special meeting Monday evening to discuss the potential loss of three buildings to a French-language board.

"Parents want to express how angry and upset they are," said Maria Corsi, who has two children at an EMSB school.

Last week, Education Minister Jean-François Roberge threatened to transfer General Vanier and Gerald McShane elementary schools and John Paul I junior high to the Commission scolaire de la Pointe-de-l'Île.

The French board needs space for an additional 3,000 students by next fall, and Roberge wants the EMSB — with many of its schools not operating at full capacity — to help.

Members of the EMSB community filled two viewing rooms as the meeting unfolded over several hours.

EMSB vice-chair Joe Ortona said that he sees losing the schools as a threat to the English-speaking minority.

"We either have the right to exist or we don't," he said.

He spoke passionately for about 40 minutes about the situation and stressed that the school board was due an 18-month consultation process over the issue — which they are being denied by Roberge's timeline. 

"The courts are on our side," he said at the meeting. "I think it's about time we started challenging the minister's power to take our schools."

Roberge said last week unless the EMSB comes up with other viable proposals by June 10, he will order the transfer of the three schools.

His ability to do so comes from an exceptional measure, article 477.1.1 of the Education Act, which gives the minister the power to order a building be transferred from one school board to another. 

It's the second time he has done so this year.

High school swap proposed as 'win-win'

A group of parents from the Rivière-des-Prairies neighbourhood in Montreal said its plan to bring an English-language high school to the area could help save the schools from being transferred to another board.

Joseph Paglia is a parent in Rivière-des-Prairies. His two boys, aged seven and nine, are not affected by proposed the school closures.

Paglia is part of a group of parents in RDP that's been lobbying for years on another issue — the drive to get an English-language high school in that neighbourhood. 

Paglia told CBC Monday his group's goals now line up with those of parents who are upset with the possible transfer of the three schools.

His boys are among 1,400 students who attend three EMSB elementary schools in RDP, but there is no English-language high school in the area. Most children end up going to Lester B. Pearson High School in Montreal North.

Paglia's group wants the EMSB and Commission scolaire de Pointe-de-l'Île to make a swap — Lester B. Pearson high in return for the smaller Jean Grou high school, which is in RDP.

Lester B. Pearson can accommodate up to 2,000 students, but right now, fewer than 1,000 go there.

If the boards swapped schools, parents in RDP would have an English high school for their kids, and the Pointe-de-l'Île School Board would gain space for 1,000 additional students in the Lester B. Pearson building.

"They need space. We have the space. Rather than make this an English versus French debate, let's make this a debate about the children," Paglia said.

Swap could save three EMSB schools under threat

Ortona supports the idea.

"This is a really a scenario that is a win-win for us," Ortona told CBC.

He said extra places the Pointe-de-l'Île board would gain in the the school swap would negate the need to transfer the other three schools.

"I've crunched the numbers. Our [proposal offers] Pointe-de-l'Île more space than what the minister is giving them by taking these three schools," he said.

A spokesperson for the Pointe-de-l'Île board refused to comment on the idea.

Francis Bouchard, a spokesperson for the education minister, responded to CBC in an email.

"We'll wait to receive a formal proposal before reacting to it," Bouchard said.

"It's still possible for the EMSB to present a more suitable proposal if it wants to avoid intervention by the minister before June 10."

With files from Antoni Nerestant


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