Students left to scramble after Islamic high school shuts down
News of the sudden closure comes as shock to parents and the 150 affected students, many of whom have attended since they were in elementary school.
With just two weeks before the school year begins, students at a private Islamic high school in Toronto are “devastated” and scrambling to find other options after they were informed over the weekend it was abruptly shutting down.
Management of the Islamic Foundation School, on Nugget Dr., said the sudden closure of the high school is related to “financial issues.” But the union representing teachers believes the move is a form of “reprisal” against employees who recently unionized — something the school denies.
News of the closure came as a shock to parents and the 150 affected students, many of whom have attended since they were in elementary school, and others who were hoping to graduate from one of the GTA’s oldest Islamic high schools, which opened its doors two decades ago. The foundation’s elementary school will remain open.
“This is so unfair,” said Anas Thakor, who is entering Grade 12. “It was supposed to be such an important year for us,” said Thakor, who inquired at the local Catholic school on Monday after hearing the news, but was told there might not be space to register so late in the summer.
“Chances are I will have to go somewhere far from home, and my friends,” he said.
Rumours about the closure had been swirling for weeks, but the news was confirmed at a heated parents’ meeting Sunday evening.
“We’re still absorbing the shock. We’re sad. We’re very disappointed,” said Jawad Jafry, who has had two children graduate from the high school. His daughter Nafeesah, a lifer, was to start Grade 12 this year.
On Monday, school officials sent parents an email saying “administrative and financial issues” led to the closure.
“The foundation regrets to inform you that unfortunately we will be closing down … due to low enrolment as well as other issues related to the foundation’s administration and finances,” said the letter, signed by principal Viquar Ahmed. “We have been trying to establish a way to keep the school operable in the face of some challenging administrative and financial issues that have arisen, however, despite our best efforts it has become clear that we are unable to do so.”
But students and parents also heard the closure was linked to recent union negotiations.
“The teachers have opted to bargain collectively with the school which is their legal right,” said Jafry. “I think the mosque administration is afraid that employees outside of their schools will want better working conditions and better wages as well. The rationale seems to be that mothballing the high school will send a clear message.”
In May, teachers at the school voted overwhelmingly to unionize, and became one of the first Islamic schools in the country to do so.
At the time, UFCW Local 175 President Shawn Haggerty said 35 full-time teachers sought union representation to address a range of issues including: “a lack of respect in the workplace, time limits on vacations, poor job security, and an inadequate compensation package.”
Another Islamic school in the GTA followed suit, but teachers at others are believed to be watching closely to see how the negotiations play out.
In a release sent out Monday, UFCW accused the school of being “anti-union.”
“It’s upsetting and petty for this employer to put the children in this community at risk rather than treat their employees with dignity and respect,” said Haggerty. “It’s clear this employer is anti-union and will do whatever it takes to prevent their employees from exercising their legal rights,” he said, adding the union was not given any notice about the closure.
“UFCW Local 175 will pursue every legal action possible to prevent the closure of the school, the expulsion of these children, and the termination of these employees,” he said. Ten high school teachers are expected to lose their jobs. The elementary school employs 25 teachers.
But Islamic Foundation School president Mohammed Anwar said this is not a case of union-busting.
“If we are union busting, we would have closed everything,” he said. “But we are continuing the JK-Grade 8 classes, and we will continue to negotiate with the teachers in those grades,” he said. “We have simply decided to keep the sustainable part of the school open for now. The high school is not sustainable,” he said, adding low enrolment was a concern.
Anwar said management has met with the union three times in two months, and was increasingly concerned about the additional costs they would incur in order to meet union demands, and the negotiation process itself.
“We are all volunteers, not experienced union negotiators or anything … but now we will have to hire professionals to accommodate the proper running of a school in a unionized environment,” he said, estimating it will cost $600,000.
He said the decision to close the school was made last week after talks with the union did not produce “concrete financial numbers” as to how much costs would go up for the school year. He said one idea floated, to increase school fees, currently around $450 per month per student, was not feasible.
“The community can’t pay it,” he said. “Our family gross income is between $60,000-80,000, the majority of them. We know the parents who send their kids here … working two jobs, living in basement apartments, and making a sacrifice so their kids get an Islamic atmosphere and a good education.”
Muneeza Sheikh, a partner at Levitt LLP Employment & Labour Law, and legal counsel for Islamic Foundation says: “There is nothing that precludes any employer who is faced with unionization from taking a step back and evaluating if the business can financially survive — and Islamic Foundation is a business — a cost associated with unionizing an entire workforce.”
But Jafry says the financial argument doesn’t add up.
“I don’t know of any parent who was informed about financial problems. That sort of news travels real fast,” said Jafry, adding parents were involved in recent fundraising efforts to expand the school and help purchase a 12-acre property in Ajax for another primary school.
“Now, at the end of August, they suddenly don’t have money and they’re shutting down the high school,” said Jafry. “I think a lot of parents and students feel that our trust has been betrayed. It’s like being slapped in the face for all the years we’ve supported the school with our hard-earned money.”
His daughter Nafeesah says instead of graduating and celebrating alongside her lifelong friends, she will “now have to spend my last year adjusting to the hallways of a new school.”
In a letter to the community, members of the student council said they are still hoping for an amicable resolution.
“Students who believed they were returning to IFS are now scrambling to find a new option, at an hour when the status of enrolment and course selection elsewhere seems bleak,” they say in the letter. “We hope that this decision will be reversed, as it primarily affects our futures.”
But Thakor, believes it may be too late.
“All my friends are enrolling elsewhere,” he said. “I don’t think anyone can risk just waiting around”