COLUMN: School board cuts fail students

The Upper Canada District School Board presented its plan to eliminate a six-million dollar deficit last week. A combination of spending freezes and cuts to bring the board back into the black for the next school year. All the while attempting to maintain a high level of service to educate students. The plan, as presented by administrators, is a failure on many fronts.

The largest of cuts is in front-line services, Educational Assistants (EA’s) and support staff. The budget document presents a 3.2% reduction in EA’s for the next school year. This results in a reduction of the number of hours EA’s have in the school. It is not a uniform reduction across the system. Some schools will be cut more than others. The problem is, those reductions affect direct support in the classroom for children. Schools in the UCDSB have adopted a more integrated and inclusive strategy for having students with needs in a normal class room setting. To do that, teachers need supports for those students. Cutting EA’s in the classroom does not provide that support.

The school board’s original proposal was to cut 30 minutes from EA’s. Besides the impact on students in the classroom, this will put the UCDSB at odds with the union representing support staff, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). The province and the board signed agreements with the union local in 2015 defining a full-time position as seven hours per day. Any cut to that time puts the board and the Ministry of Education in breach of those agreements. The cost to deal with that breech will take further funds away from the budget, further impacting the school system.

Other support staff, from office to janitorial are also on the chopping block. All positions which support learning in the school.

Early Childhood Educators (ECE) are not being cut. They receive a 6.4% increase in funding for the new school year, due to full-day kindergarten and the new daycare and after school care programs in schools.

Equipment purchases such as new computers are frozen for the year. Funding to special education programs will be cut. But we can all rejoice that the board found the funding mechanisms to build new schools. We just can’t afford the support staff to help kids learn in them.

Cutting front line services is an easy-out for board administrators. Cite a decrease in projected enrollment, 471 students for next year, then cut. A snip here, a freeze there, and everyone has to tighten their belts a little. Do a little more with a little less. It is also the most backward way to provide the best education to students.

How can school board trustees vote for a budget that cuts direct services to the students they were elected to represent the interests of?

If the UCDSB has a deficit, look within the board office first. How many administrators are needed in the three board offices of the UCDSB? Wait a moment. 20 years ago, three boards were merged into one to lower the amount of duplication in board administration. How can there still be three board offices?

Inside the board offices there are seven superintendents to look after the affairs of the board, along with a director to run it all. That is close to 1.4 million in salary for eight positions alone according to the 2016 Ontario Sunshine List. Add into that all the levels of bureaucracy in the school board. A little attrition and belt tightening inside the board offices would go a long way to fixing a structural deficit issue at the board. How much bureaucracy is needed with declining enrollment after all?

The UCDSB has a serious problem and this ham-fisted, ill-thought-out round of cuts will not cure it. A school board can only cut so much from front line services before it impacts the students they are tasked with educating. UCDSB schools are already past that point. By allowing the bloated bureaucracy at the board dictate what cuts to make, trustees fail to exercise their duties. Cut the bureaucracy and put the money into the classrooms where it is needed most. Do not balance the school board’s structural deficit on the backs of students.