Thursday, September 06, 2012

Religion at what cost?

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has recently been examining it's budget for savings and to ensure non provincially funded costs meet revenues.  This has included examining the costs to community groups renting school gynamasiums for sports like basketball, scouts and the like.  in reviewing the expenditures for community groups the board explained it succintly like this:

The Board charges fees for permits and currently incurs an $11-million loss on permit revenues compared to costs,”... The ministry has provided funding through the Priority Schools Initiative to offset the costs of permits for non-profit groups, but it is a fixed amount each year. If permits are not cost recovery, the Board must redirect the funding intended to support care, cleaning and maintenance of schools during regular day school hours to subsidize permit fees.

Seems simple enough.  While the board's review of ensuring is what money goes out, also comes in to break even which commendable, the TDSB's review leaves some questions. 

In the 2011-2012 school year the TDSB responded to parental inquiries about student safety on Friday afternoons.  At Valley Park Middle School , Muslim students were leaving the building to attend Friday afternoon prayer sessions at a local Mosque.  The school board attempted to resolve the issue by inviting a local Imam into the school to hold the prayer sessions in the school cafeteria.  Even former education minister Kathleen Wynne supported the accomodation.   This seemed to resolve the issue of student safety issues brought forward as the students would no longer be leaving the school.

Fast forward to the Toronto District School Board's budget review for community groups recently completed. The school increased fees for basketball groups and at least two christian churches that use school board facilities for their worship services. As the Toronto Sun's Joe Warmington noted,  one church group had their permit fees increased by 800%.  Joe also did some further investigation to find out if the Muslim group at Valley Park Middle School would have to start paying similar fees for using the school cafeteria.  The Toronto District School Board's Communications Department (i.e. "the messenger") responded the question about possible board levied fees for the Muslim use of the school for Friday afternoon prayers with:

My understanding is that is a religious accommodation as opposed to a permit-for-use and is not affected by this. - Ryan Bird, Toronto District School Board quoted in Toronto Sun.

The TDSB can not have it both ways.  On one hand the Muslim students can bring in an Imam to hold Friday afternoon prayer under "religious accomodation" rules the school board has while on the other Christian churches using board facilities on Sundays or any other part of the week are charged fees under it's "Community Use of Schools" policies.  How does the board in any way think slotting one religious group under "religious accomodation" and another under "Community Use of Schools" is correct?  One policy apparently, according to the board's communication's representative Ryan Bird, allows one group to use the board space for free while another policy charges for use by another religious group.  The inconsistancy here at the board needs to be addresssed.

The board needs to merge and ammend the community use policy and the religious accomodation policy into one to ensure all religious groups are treated fairly.  Fees should be levied to both religious organizations to recoup the costs for maintaining the space used.  Thus, if the same school cafeteria is used by a Muslim group on Friday afternoon for two hours and the same space is used by a Christian church for two hours on a Sunday, the same fee should apply to both.  That being said, if a community basketball association uses the same space, the same fee should apply as well.  This is only fair to treat all community groups equally while also ensuring the books are balanced.  Not only is it fair to the community groups, it is also fair to the taxpayers as well.

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