McGuinty not happy with decision to establish an Africentric school, but won’t prevent it

Opposition accuses the Ontario premier of being a ’hypocrite’

Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty opposes the establishing of a black focused school in Toronto, but will not prevent the school board from doing so—a position critics say flies in the face of the party’s much-touted opposition to funding religious schools, which helped propel his Liberal government to victory in the last election.

Premier Dalton McGuinty frowned Thursday on the Toronto District School Board’s plans for the black-focused school, but said it wouldn’t be up to the province to take action against the publicly funded board.

“I am disappointed with the board’s decision,” McGuinty said. “I don’t support it and we won’t fund it. I continue to believe that the best way for us to educate our children is to bring them together so they can come together, learn together and grow together.”

However, McGuinty, deferring to the board’s autonomy says he will not prevent the creation of a black-focused school. The McGuinty Liberals cruised to victory in the fall election largely on the controversy surrounding his rival John Tory’s unpopular promise to extend public funding to faith-based schools. The issue dominated the campaign and cost the Progressive Conservatives support.

Opposition critics, still licking their wounds from their October defeat, accused the premier of trying to have it both ways. “He’s a hypocrite to say that he can’t take any action,” said Conservative Elizabeth Witmer. “He could be working with the board and saying, ‘OK, you’ve got a problem.”‘

Witmer said high dropout rates and underachieving students are problems across the province, not just in Toronto, and creating a black-focused school isn’t the answer.

“Before you know it, you’re going to have another group at some point in time . . . say, ‘You know what? We’d like to set up a school for our students because of this reason.”‘

Education Minister Kathleen Wynne insisted there’s a difference between the province’s support for a school board planning to establish a black-focused school and the contentious issue of extending public funds to religious schools.

“This is a student achievement issue and the board is acting on its right to set up an alternative school,” said Wynne, who faced off against Tory for her Toronto seat. “I believe that school boards are important institutions. I believe that they should have a degree of autonomy. So this board is acting within its purview.”

McGuinty said Toronto District School Board trustees “leapt before they took a good look” in approving the plan, but that it was up to Toronto residents to decide if they wanted to try to stop the school by appealing to the board.

“What is really troubling for me is what about the 30,000-plus black students at the TDSB who are not going to get into this school or these schools?” he said. “How does this assist them in a very direct way in improving the quality of their educational opportunities?”

Implementing the adopted recommendations to combat high dropout rates among black students, which includes the proposed black-focused school, is expected to cost the school board about $850,000, which McGuinty insists the province will not provide.

But he wouldn’t say whether that means the province won’t bail out the cash-strapped school board at the end of the year, as it has in the past.

“The point I’m making today is that we’re not going to be providing any additional funding for this particular new policy,” McGuinty said.

Board officials, who are projecting a $41-million deficit, have said they will find the money for the school in their $2.3-billion budget. The school was among four recommendations approved Tuesday following a narrow vote and months of heated debate.

Critics fear the “Africentric” school, slated to open by September 2009, will further divide an already fragmented student population and open the door to school segregation on the basis of religion and ethnicity.

The proposed school has been billed as a Canadian first, although an elementary school that teaches the provincial curriculum in the predominantly black community of North Preston, N.S., operates with an Africentric philosophy.

The board’s director of education, Gerry Connelly, suggested Wednesday that the board would be open to establishing more than one black-focused school if there was sufficient demand.