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Staff, program cuts on the line as school boards face multi-million dollar budget gaps

Last Updated May 15, 2019 at 11:22 pm EDT

Cuts to education staff, services and programs could be coming next school year, as Catholic and public school boards across the GTA face multi-million dollar holes in their budgets.

A staff report to Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) trustees indicates, based on preliminary analysis, “staff expect that service levels across all program and service areas will need to be reduced in order to develop a balanced budget.”

Preliminary estimates suggest the board will need to find $31.5 million in savings — cuts they predict will primarily be in staffing — and a projected loss of local priorities funding, which affects initiatives like the international languages program (ILP).

Whether the ILP will receive funding for the next school year remains unclear, said TCDSB Chair Maria Rizzo. “At the end of this year it will cease to exist basically if the government doesn’t make up its mind in terms of funding it and making sure that we can teach it within the 300-minute day.”

The program operates out of 44 schools and exposes students to third languages like Arabic, Italian, simplified and traditional Chinese and Ukrainian. The program costs about $9.7 million, but one of several options the board is considering is to move the program to evenings and weekends, for a saving of $7.3 million.

Education Minister Lisa Thompson says the government is committed to programs like the ILP and that school boards should wait for final funding numbers for local priorities.

“A large part of their decrease at this time is based on the local priorities fund, which they know does not expire until Aug. 31 … that’s why I’m really pleased that we do have some labour partners coming to the table already because it’s important that we start discussing really serious parts of our education process,” she said.

The Peel District School Board declined comment on this story until their final funding numbers are received but a scathing letter, dated May 14, 2019, from board chair Stan Cameron to the Education Minister outlines the district’s concerns, particularly when it comes to larger classroom sizes.

“Secondary students have less choice when selecting courses, and some are no longer able to take courses in day school that they need to gain access to post-secondary programs,” Cameron writes. “As school staff build timetables, their focus must be on offering courses that all of their students require in order to graduate with an Ontario Secondary School Diploma or Ontario Secondary School Certificate. This means many schools are left with limited or no credit options beyond those that are required for graduation. This has had a significant, negative impact on some subject areas.”

Cameron says the biggest impact has been on technological, arts and social sciences courses, but points out that some math, science and business courses have also been cancelled.

“Put simply, increasing class sizes places more value on lowering the provincial debt than in investing in the future of Ontario’s children and youth. That is a substantial price to pay,” Cameron wrote.

Read the full letter below:

While the changes to classroom sizes at the secondary level have started to curb course offerings, the changes to intermediate class sizes are forcing the TCDSB to hire additional staff without additional funds.

“There is no money coming for that in the budget that we’ve allocated, because it came as a complete surprise to us,” Rizzo said.

Dufferin-Peel District Catholic School Board (DPCDSB) is also coming to terms with funding gaps.

“We estimate a preliminary impact, on a year-over-year basis, of over $15 million,” Bruce Campbell, a spokesperson for DPCDSB, said in a statement. “This is not the first time the DPCDSB has been faced with budget reductions and it is always challenging and difficult. However, as a service organization, where approximately 90 per cent of our budget relates to salaries and benefits, budget reductions often mean position reductions.”

Campbell says the district has looked at reducing non-classroom teaching positions, including curriculum consultant positions.

The York Catholic School Board is looking at a preliminary budget shortfall, before any planned savings measures, of about $7.7 million.

“We are continuing to work diligently to minimize the impact that any changes to funding may have on our students and staff,” board spokesperson Stefan Slovak said in an email.

Liberal MPP Mitzie Hunter predicts reductions in funding will have widespread consequences, leading to fewer teachers, EAs for students with special needs and caretakers.

However, Thompson says there is still time for her ministry and the province’s school boards to work together.

“Right now we’re looking to hear from our education partners,” Thompson said. “Please come to us as a ministry. That’s my message today. We are looking for input through to May 31.”

Rizzo says she is confident some savings can be found — for example by introducing paid parking for employees — and is hopeful that once final funding numbers are released, the gap wont be as profound.

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