Montreal school boards slam province's handling of school fee debate

School boards that serve the island of Montreal held a joint news conference Thursday, asking the education minister to give them more time to figure out what they can charge for, in the wake of a class-action suit over extra fees.

Island's boards unite to ask education minister for more time to figure out what extras they can charge for

The five school boards serving the island of Montreal are asking Education Minister Sébastien Proulx for more time and more collaboration when it comes to deciding the future of school fees. (Steve Rukavina/CBC)

School boards that serve the island of Montreal held a joint news conference Thursday, asking the province to be more collaborative in deciding the future of school fees in Quebec.

The debate over fees for everything from field trips to USB keys was ignited last year, when courts approved a class-action lawsuit launched by a frustrated mother in Jonquière, in the Saguenay region, who felt some school fees were illegal.

"This particular class action puts into question whether or not we can charge for any activity," said Angela Mancini, chair of the English Montreal School Board.

"If we can't charge fees, we're going to be cancelling a lot of activities or doing a lot of fundraising. I don't know how we would ever do it,"  Mancini said.

In addition to the EMSB, the other boards serving the island are the Commission scolaire de Montréal, the Commission scolaire de la Pointe-de-l'Île, the Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys and the Lester B. Pearson School Board.

Dec. 15 deadline

The Education Act now stipulates that "education services, textbooks and instructional material must be free," with a few exceptions. 

Schools may charge fees for materials or services that fall outside that definition.

Prompted by the class-action lawsuit, Education Minister Sébastien Proulx asked school boards in September to do a thorough review of what they should be providing and what extras they should be charging parents for. 

He also asked the boards to come up with concrete propositions to better manage the principle of free education and to standardize practices across the province.

Proulx set a Dec. 15 deadline.

The boards are asking for more time, saying Proulx has put them in a difficult position.

"It is an impossible task for school boards to gather all their stakeholders in that time," Mancini said.

She said the boards have so far received no response to their request for an extension.

Boards also want more collaboration

The boards are also said they feel the minister shouldn't be putting the onus entirely on them to solve the problem.  

They say parents, educators, boards and the government should all be involved.

"We're at risk as school boards because they're isn't enough definition in the Education Act and in the law right now," Mancini said.

"If we don't settle what it is we can actually charge for, then we're going to find ourselves in other lawsuits," she added.

Proulx was not immediately available to comment Thursday.