Hot! Drummond Report: School boards fear loss of independence

TheStar.com – news/canada/politics
Published: February 16, 2012.   Kristin Rushowy, Education Reporter

School boards can’t raise taxes to boost their budgets. Collective bargaining with teachers and support staff has largely been taken out of boards’ hands.

Now, the economist advising Ontario on where to find cuts to help deal with the deficit has said the province should be able to order boards to sell unused buildings — such as closed schools — and also gut 70 per cent of non-teaching staff such as psychologists, education assistants and guidance counsellors.

School boards say Don Drummond’s recommendations, if implemented, would not only affect the quality of education but also further erode their independence.

“If they wanted to do that, why don’t they just do away with us?” said Toronto District School Board Trustee Sheila Ward, of the proposal to give the province the power to force boards to sell buildings.

No minister of the government has that expertise, she added — even she and her fellow Toronto trustees realized they didn’t have such expertise and that’s why the board created the arms-length TLC (Toronto Lands Corp.) to manage its real estate, she added.

“I don’t think any minister sitting at Queen’s Park can begin to have the knowledge that we have here of our facilities, our schools,” Ward added.

If the province is afraid that boards, facing public pressure, won’t make tough decisions to sell off buildings, “that’s an entirely different problem — but that’s not the way to solve it.”

Catherine Fife, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said boards already do a lot of work around capital planning

“If the ministry is going to have the over-riding power to trump the local democratic process, that is definitely worrisome.” Take the Toronto public board, she said — while it has surplus space now, it has projected an increase in enrolment and will need those properties in the future.

Toronto Catholic board Trustee John Del Grande questioned how much selling off empty buildings would actually benefit the government.

“Selling empty buildings doesn’t exactly translate into savings to the province, since it’s up to the school board to balance funds based on the per-student grants funding between assets and staffing costs.”

He said what’s really needed is a “smarter provincial-municipal strategy on shared use of buildings.”

Drummond’s report touched almost every aspect of education, proposing cutting back full-day kindergarten — or if not, then trimming staffing for it and implementing it over a longer time period. It also said class sizes could be bigger, and that the “victory lap” be eliminated for the 14 per cent of high school students who return for a fifth year, mostly to upgrade their marks before applying to post-secondary institutions. The report also said some students should be charged to ride the bus.

Ward said the class size increase would actually help boards, because the strict cap of 20 students for non-full-day kindergarten to Grade 3 classrooms has been difficult for administrators to work around. She estimated that by boosting class sizes slightly, as Drummond recommended, the Toronto board alone could save $40 million to $50 million.

She also lauded his call for more funding for aboriginal education.

However, she was dead set against any cuts to technology as it goes against everything the board, and society, is moving toward, she said. “Students need the skills to compete in the world, and you need a labour pool that is well-educated; you can’t do that if you dumb down this stuff.”

Cuts to technology would be “penny wise and pound foolish,” she added.

Cuts to staff such psychologists or child and youth workers were also roundly dismissed by boards.

“Students are already facing a shortage of support services than historically,” said Del Grande. “Salaries need be to controlled as well as perhaps providing student services personnel that are shared across ministries and school boards.”

Fife said Drummond has acknowledged the huge payoff in investing in supports for children early on, “and that’s the context here.

“We’re just starting to gain momentum on the mental health issue in schools, providing supports to recognize mental health issues earlier, and putting in plans to address the social and emotional needs of students. To undo that now, would compromise the work we’ve done.”

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