Faced with overcrowding, French school board looks to English counterpart for help

According to the Commission scolaire de Montréal (CSDM), 59 per cent of its elementary schools are overpopulated, while 65 per cent of English Montreal School Board (EMSB) schools are under-capacity.

EMSB chair Angela Mancini says she would be open to sharing space with CSDM schools

Montreal's largest French school board is looking into the possibility of sharing space with the English schools to deal with overcrowding. (Radio-Canada)

Montreal's largest French-language school board is eyeing under-capacity English schools to help solve issues with overcrowding, a plan its counterpart would be open to — with conditions.

According to the Commission scolaire de Montréal (CSDM), 59 per cent of its elementary schools are overpopulated, while 65 per cent of English Montreal School Board (EMSB) schools are under-capacity.

At one CSDM school in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood, library books have been moved into hallways and the music class will be converted into a normal classroom to help deal with the space issues.

At école Sainte-Bernadette-Soubirous, a French elementary school in Rosemont, classes take place in three different buildings that are a kilometre away from each other.

Meanwhile, the occupancy rate at nearby Rosemount High School, which is under the EMSB, is 56 per cent.

A small group of parents whose children attend école Sainte-Bernadette-Soubirous gathered outside the school Tuesday, asking for the school to provide transportation to the different pavilions for all students. (Mélissa François/Radio-Canada)

The discrepancy in enrolment between the two boards can be explained by corresponding trends: each year, some students who are eligible to attend an English school in Quebec choose the French system while, under Bill 101, children whose parents were not educated in English in Quebec or elsewhere in Canada must attend French school.

Given how in some of the city's neighbourhoods, schools from the two boards are near each other, the CSDM says it would be interested in sharing space with nearby English schools.

Angela Mancini, EMSB chair, said while the board won't be handing over entire buildings to the French board, the EMSB is open to sharing space with its French counterparts.

In fact, an agreement to share space is already in place at St. Dorothy School in Saint-Michel, she said.

"We have to have requests that come from our French counterparts, and once we're solid on understanding where and in what areas of the city they would need space … if our schools have the space, because some of our schools are full, at that point we would be able to start a process of consultation with the parents in order to see how they feel about it," she said.

More government money needed

Although EMSB schools have extra space, that doesn't mean it's not being used, Mancini said.

Some establishments are home to alternative schools and adult education and vocational classes.

Catherine Harel Bourdon, CDSM president, said any lasting solution to the overcrowding has to include building new schools or adding on to existing ones.
The chair of Quebec's largest school board, the Commission Scolaire de Montréal, Catherine Harel Bourdon, says her school board would need to create 475 new classrooms to meet the needs of four-year-olds, and for that, they'd need more money from the government. (Radio-Canada)

With an increasing number of students enrolling and the fact that six schools have been closed recently because they were poorly maintained, she estimated the board will be 60 to 75 more classes every year for the next five years.

For that, they need money.

"We obtained, for six projects, $59 million. We had asked for almost double that," she said.

Education Minister Sébastien Proulx didn't deny there is an issue with overcrowding in the province's schools, and said various government ministries are working on the issue and reaching out to others, such as the City of Montreal, for help.

In the case of the CSDM, the government has freed the funds for renovations and new classes be built but the work hasn't yet started.

When asked if he was passing the buck, he said he is involved in the files and watching them closely, reiterating that the government has made "significant" amounts of money available for work to increase school capacity.

With files from Radio-Canada's Davide Gentile and CBC Montreal's Daybreak