Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has outraged parent leaders at the high school where he coaches football, prompting calls for him to quit volunteering and fears that his negative remarks about the area and students are hurting enrolment and threatening the school's future.
Doreen Way, chair of the parent council at Don Bosco Catholic Secondary School, said the kind of comments made by Mr. Ford last week during a TV interview – where he talked about gangs and the school's "tough" neighbourhood – cannot continue. Staff and teachers are working hard to turn around the north Etobicoke school, which has struggled with declining enrolment, she said, but it's hard to work against a negative image when the person spreading it is the city's own mayor.
"All I want him to do is stop slagging our school," said Ms. Way, who says she voted for Mr. Ford, but is "disheartened" by his behaviour. "It is hurtful to the kids. He has to stop using our school and our students – putting them down to make himself look good."
Ms. Way, who has a child in Grade 12 and lives blocks from the school, says her frustration is shared by the school's teachers, the majority of whom she said are behind a letter urging the school board to take action.
Parent council vice-chair Teresa Bridport, say it's time for the school and Mr. Ford to part ways.
"I personally think that he should stop coaching. He should concentrate on being the Mayor of the City," she said in an e-mail. "The football program would still be viable and would continue at Don Bosco without his coaching."
Mr. Ford was asked Thursday if he regretted his remarks, which aired last week after he left for a vacation in Florida. "I love that school. I love the kids, the teachers, the parents, I always have," he told reporters at city hall.
Toronto Catholic District School Board officials indicated Thursday they share many of the concerns expressed by parents and teachers. "We are examining the Mayor's statements, some of which are a completely inaccurate portrayal of our students, our school and the community in which the school is located," said a board statement. "The Board will determine an appropriate course of action that ensures a positive learning environment for our students and promotes student achievement and well-being."
Mr. Ford is passionate about his volunteer coaching duties and the players of the Don Bosco Eagles, who last fall made it to the finals of the Metro Bowl. But he has frequently courted controversy because of his role.
Last fall, he was criticized for leaving council and executive meetings to coach the team. The Globe and Mail also found he was using city cars and cellphones and members of his staff, who are city employees, to help with his team.
The latest controversy erupted after Mr. Ford spoke about his involvement with the team in an interview with Sun News.
"A lot of these kids come from gangs, they come from broken homes – the stories you would hear would bring a tear to your eye," Mr. Ford said, describing the football players.
"This is a tough school. This is a tough area. You are looking at some of the toughest areas in Rexdale. If it wasn`t for this football, these kids just wouldn`t go to school. They have no reason to go to school," Mr. Ford said later, going on to talk about late night calls to get players out of jail.
Ms. Way says the mayor's remarks, coming at a time when Grade 8 students are picking high school programs, undoes much of the good work done by parents and staff, who have personally visited parent groups at local schools to try to dispel the negative reputation that continues to dog the school despite major changes in recent years, such as new academic programs, falling suspension rates, and student surveys that give Don Bosco high rankings in areas such as safety.
"We are in a weird position. This is the mayor of our city," she explained. "He is a good guy. Would the students want him to go – probably not."
Still she said it is hard to counter the words of a public figure. "We are fighting against difficult odds," Ms. Way said. "It is really disheartening because we have worked so hard to turn things around."
As a member of the local community, Ms. Way said she also is troubled by Mr. Ford's description of her neighbourhood, where she says she walks the dog every night at 11:30 and worries only about coyotes, not gangs. "I don't think he knows what he is talking about," she said.
Ms. Way said she has written to the mayor as a Don Bosco parent and local resident. The parent council is planning to meet, she said, and will decide then if a letter from the group is needed and what it should say.
With files from Sunny Dhillon