Truce cools passions over fate of Catholic school

Friends of Neil McNeil high school have been circling the wagons for the past three months to protect its lands from the reach of the Catholic School Board. For now, there appeared to be a truce.

In June 2009, the Toronto Catholic District School Board started a strategic review of five east-end schools, including Neil McNeil Catholic Secondary School, at 127 Victoria Park Avenue, a block south of Kingston Road.

According to Emmy Szerkeres, acting co-ordinator of communications at the TCDSB, the strategic, or ARC, review was triggered by enrolments above capacity at four of the high schools, including Neil McNeil, which has an enrolment 28 per cent above capacity.

On Jan. 27, a Neil McNeil delegation spoke to the TCDSB board meeting at 80 Sheppard Ave. E. Maria Rayson, from the school’s Catholic School Advisory Council (CSAC), voiced concerns about the board’s potential sale of Neil McNeil, so soon after its purchase from the Spiritan Fathers, in June 2009.

The Spiritans are a Roman Catholic religious congregation founded in 1703 with members in Canada and abroad. They sold the school to the TCDSB with a covenant that the board continue to operate Neil McNeil on the property for the next 50 years.

“Parents, both past and present, and current students felt that the covenant made in the agreement with the Spiritan priests should be honoured,” Rayson said. “The atmosphere was charged and response from many was strong and passionate.”

She also paraphrased a written statement from Father Bob Colburn of the Spiritan Congregation: “Had the Spiritans known that Neil McNeil would be put on the table for relocation and closure in such a short period of time, they would not have sold the land.”

Neil McNeil, a school for young men, sits on six acres of land in the Beaches area — where homes easily sell for more than $500,000.

According to Rayson, some of the parents of CSAC have estimated the value of the property at $18 million if redeveloped as a condo complex. This figure is 50 per cent higher than the sale price of $12.4 million.

The Spiritans are equally concerned about a potential relocation of Neil McNeil and sale of the property. According to Father Paul McAuley, the TCDSB should honour recent covenants with the Spiritans, in recognition of their sacrifices made over several decades.

“When the school was first built, originally by Irish priests, they slept in classrooms at night,” McAuley said. “For many years, Spiritans taught at Neil McNeil for minimum compensation.”

McAuley added that the priests also sold their administration headquarters and retirement home on the property — so another sale would trigger a relocation of these key facilities.

Finally, he said, the congregation may have received a higher price if it had sold the property competitively to real estate developers instead of through a friendly sale to the TCDSB.

McAuley references section 7a) of the sale agreement, that “the purchaser covenants to use its best efforts to continuously operate Neil McNeil Catholic Secondary School at the Property for not less than 50 years from the date of the execution of this agreement.”

According to McAuley, the term covenant also carries a religious connotation, a religious promise made between two Catholic organizations.

According to the Oxford dictionary, one of the definitions of the word “covenant” is “an agreement held to be the basis of a relationship of commitment with God.”

Rayson added that many people within CSAC did not understand how the board could have signed a written covenant in June when it had just set in motion an ARC review that might soon lead to a sale or relocation of the school.

McAuley stated the Spiritans were first informed of the ARC review in October 2009 in a meeting with Angelo Sangiorgio of the TCDSB after the sale had been completed.

Richard Alway, ministry supervisor from the Ontario government’s Ministry of Education, chaired the Jan. 27 TCDSB meeting.

He indicated that he had met with Spiritans, while “trying to reassure them of our positive intentions with regard to the process … taking a careful account of the opinions that we hear.”

Angelo Sangiorgio, associate director of planning and facilities at the TCDSB, noted that the ARC review was formally approved at a TCDSB board meeting in April of 2009 and thus should have been a matter of public record.

Sangiorgio clarified that the negotiations for the land started back in March, 2007. He then stated the objectives of the transaction.

“We bought the property since we were paying half a million dollars a year in rent and also to have the opportunity to upgrade it, which we would be reluctant to do if we leased it,” Sangiorgio said.

“We are not in the business of real estate, in flipping properties … There were two appraisals, one from each side … and we paid fair market value.”

As long as the board operated a Catholic school on the property, it was meeting the intent of the covenants, according to Sangiorgio. He emphasized that the board has not made any decision to sell the property, as some parents might believe.

This last point seems to have cooled passions from friends of Neil McNeil. Yet some in their circle have planned a war chest to defend the Spiritans if the need arises.

The last word for this week came from Bernadette Warren, who attended a public meeting on Feb. 8. at St. Patrick Catholic Secondary School.

She suggested that, instead of considering the sale of Neil McNeil, the TCDSB should put up for sale its large headquarters within the North York city centre. Then the board might better appreciate the feelings of the parents at all five schools.