April Column

The Toronto District School Board recently approved its budget for the 2014/2015 year. In order to eliminate a $16.5 million deficit and balance the budget, Trustees voted to eliminate 250 teaching jobs. Consequently, we will have fewer elementary and secondary teachers, fewer special education teachers, fewer special education support workers, and fewer English as a second language teachers.

Sometime in the late nineties, shortly after I graduated from university, I spoke with some parents about the need to expand services for children with autism in their local schools and communities. Almost two decades later, services have not improved much for children with autism, or other disabilities, in our schools.

Going door-to-door during the recent municipal campaign, I met several families who were struggling because of a lack of supports: insufficient resources in schools, lack of one-on-one attention, and the inability of schools to provide full day accommodation.

The Toronto District School Board recently approved its budget for the 2014/2015 year. In order to eliminate a $16.5 million deficit and balance the budget, Trustees voted to eliminate 250 teaching jobs. Consequently, we will have fewer elementary and secondary teachers, fewer special education teachers, fewer special education support workers, and fewer English as a second language teachers.

Undoubtedly these cuts will disproportionately affect parents and families who are already struggling in poorer neighbourhoods.

Since the provincial government eliminated taxation power for school boards back in the 1990s, the TDSB has suffered diminishing resources year after year. Despite the facts that very few new schools have been built in the city over the last two decades, and that population increase has meant more people and corporations paying education tax, the influx of money has not been passed on to public schools in Toronto.

Instead of demanding more resources from the provincial government, Trustees have tried to appease the government by adopting the Wilson report and balancing the budget. Upper management, though, is escaping unscathed: trustees were unwilling to take a hard look at Director Donna Quan's ballooning administration.

But what has really taken many of us by surprise, including trustees, is the new panel that the province has assembled, headed by former Toronto mayor Barbara Hall, to determine the future of the school board. Although a number of prominent people are sitting on this advisory panel, no trustees have been invited to participate or provide input. Just a short while ago, Wilson did not meet with any trustees, either, before submitting her report.

As Toronto-Danforth MPP Peter Tabuns has pointed out, the advisory panel’s mandate does not include looking at the current funding formula – the main reason why the Board finds itself in a mess, now. Regardless of whether we break up the Board or appoint trustees, if funding is insufficient, then the Board will continue to be plagued by dysfunction.

Essentially, for more than a decade, the provincial government has indirectly managed the TDSB and other boards through the funding formula and education directives. Trustees have been convenient pawns whenever there has been community resistance to cutbacks.

One option is to transfer responsibility for public schools to city council along with funds raised by the education tax. Schools are a big part of our city and it would make sense for them to become a branch within the city.

Above all, physical safety and mental well-being for students must be priority number one. In the Peel Region District School Board, 12 year old Christian Thorndyke, who is autistic, was left isolated for long periods of time and denied food and water. Without proper staffing and resources to prevent such travesties, we will see more of the same within the province and the TDSB. It is just a matter of time, and it will not be long.

We deserve, and must demand, better.