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Surprise fees a hurdle for groups

Two community groups that run after-school programs at Secord Elementary hope the Toronto District School Board’s new permits policy makes it easier to rent classes next school year.

Last August, three days before starting their free sports, health and nutrition program for Grade 1 to 6 students, the Boys and Girls Club of West Scarborough were told they would owe $16,000 in permit fees to rent after-school classrooms at Secord.

Previously, the club paid no permit fees because it runs on weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. – hours when many schools have TDSB staff on hand. Permit fees are usually only charged to groups renting classes or sports fields after 6 p.m.

“We’re in a bit of a niche spot,” said Joshua Hood, the Boys and Girls Club coordinator for child and youth services in West Scarborough.

Hood said the club is a registered charity, carries its own insurance, and has 10 high school and university-student counsellors for the 60 children in the club this year, plus a Secord supply teacher who supervises.

Nevertheless, Hood said without a TDSB staff person at the school until 6 p.m., it turned out the school was facing a liability problem by hosting even such well-staffed groups unsupervised.

When the issue came up last fall, Hood said it quickly became clear that it was not unique to his club – more than a dozen others were in the same boat across the city.

“It kind of took on its own life,” Hood said. “All of a sudden we were not the only school or organization that was having the issue.”

The school board finally decided to waive permit fees for the Boys and Girls Club last year, but not before several months where Hood said the club relied on Secord principal Lisa Moser for her fantastic support – she stayed late every day so the club was covered for its first hour, and then they went out to the sports fields until 6 p.m.

“We’re really happy to be there,” Hood said. “There is nothing better than helping parents out, and giving young people in the community a job at the same time.”

This winter, a second community group fell into a Catch-22 at Secord when it comes to classroom rentals.

On Feb. 4, the East End Music Project started at Secord – it is a new non-profit offering weekly group lessons in choir, guitar, drumming, and ukulele on a sliding scale.

Students pay between $1 and $15 per lesson, said director Miranda Snyder, depending on the instrument and their family income.

Plans to use another location fell through shortly before they started, but director Miranda Snyder said Secord quickly came up as a better venue.

The school is easy for families in the Taylor Massey area to get to and has dedicated music classes with pianos.

“The teachers and administration at Secord have been just great to work with,” Snyder said. “That’s been super positive.”

Less positive is the $6,000 permit fee the EEMP was initially charged for its 14-week program.

Snyder said the problem is the EEMP is so new it hasn’t formally incorporated as a non-profit, which she said is expensive and time-consuming in its own right. While the group did submit financial documents to the permit office, they weren’t enough to confirm the threshold for non-profit status.

“The only way they felt they could process it was as though we were running a for-profit,” Snyder said. “There was just no leniency there.”

That should be resolved next year, she said, because the EEMP will likely be incorporated. The school also plans to adopt a new rule that allows non-profits to register using an affidavit and financial documents.

Until then, Snyder said the EEMP whittled away classrooms and shrank its lessons by an hour to get the school permit fees down to $3,500, which she said was covered in a less-than-perfect way.

“Right now it’s on my Visa card,” she said, with a wry laugh. Given a total budget of $20,000, she said it’s a significant cost they didn’t count on.

“We are going to have to do some fundraising to pay for that.”

Heather Tormey, whose son and daughter are taking drumming and choir lessons with the group, said right now the policy is too formulaic.

“Sometimes you need a little bit of brain power to see that a $2 music lesson serving this community is a very good thing, and perhaps stinging the organization for $6,000 is not the best idea.”

While it has had a rough start, Snyder said she is happy that the East End Music Project is part of the Secord community.

“All the mild headaches with the permitting aside, it is the best place to be,” she said.

Trustee Sheila Cary-Meagher said in the end, the permits issue is the result of the 1998 amalgamation of Toronto, when school boards lost the ability to levy local taxes to meet local demand.

“It used to be that they could get a permit for nothing,” she said, noting that schools used to spend 75 per cent of the funds raised in Toronto, but that is now down to 67.

“Those few percentage points take us from being a board that could do lots of things to a board that cannot do much of anything,” she said.

Cary-Meagher did welcome the inclusion of community groups on the permits committee that decided on a fee scale for next year, which narrows the community group categories down to four.

“They seem to be ticking along very nicely, but it shouldn’t be this hard,” she said. “And it all boils down to the fact we don’t have enough money.’

For more information on the new categories and fee schedules for next school year, visit www.tdsb.on.ca. The changes will not apply to field permits until January 1, 2015.

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