TDSB budget woes: Education assistants and school superintendents as a “nice-to-have”

My young son hated school when he started it; he hated school so much he ran away frequently. One January morning, wearing no shoes, he ran out straight out the school doors having realized stopping to grab outerwear would slow his escape. His heroic kindergarten education assistant was the one who caught him again.

So when Mike Harris threatened to cut funding for education assistants, I began a long career as a parent activist. My son will graduate from high school next year, and education assistants are being cut once more. (I don’t remember a time when school funding wasn’t being cut.)

In 2012, the Toronto District School Board is looking at another yawning funding gap, one that has now grown to over $100 million a year.

School trustees might choose to face down the current Liberal government, to refuse to implement a funding formula which systematically underfunds high-cost urban areas like Toronto. But the last time the Board did that, it was put under provincial supervision. And nothing changed.

So, instead, trustees are faced with staff layoffs. (Lay-off notices went out this week to over 700 education assistants, school secretaries, high school teachers and other staff, some with almost three decades of work at the Board.)

This will get worse. The first announced wave has moved the Board less than halfway to their budget target. Board staff and committees are looking now for another $60 million to cut.

More staff will fall, and it’s going to get ugly. For instance, senior staff came under ruthless attack at the last Board meeting, the quality of their contribution to the education enterprise being debated, as they sat there behind the trustees. Superintendents are an easy target. If women who chase into a snow storm after a small angry child are a “nice-to-have,” then these senior staff have little chance of showing they are a “must have.”

Really, the debate over central service staff is a mug’s game which the non-profit sector has been playing for years. Funding for core administrative staff pays for people who run the payroll, pay bills, hire staff, keep computers running, conduct health & safety inspections or maintain harassment prevention offices. Core staff are the ones who let others do the work of the organization, whether teaching or serving clients. Yet they are not seen as “mission critical.”

Trustees will be faced with tough choices. This, now, is the time they cannot be parochial or arbitrary in their decisions.

One of the key tools they have at their disposal, then, is one they adopted a few years ago: the Learning Opportunities Index (LOI), which ranks schools according to communities’ needs. The LOI was created because the school board was looking for better criteria to drive resource allocations. Trustees chose, as the framework for its decisions, the principle of equity, the idea that those who are stronger can do with less.

Almost three decades later, during the latest revision, the Board renewed that policy commitment and strengthened it, adopting a policy which said

In order to provide a more equitable distribution of resources, the Learning Opportunities Index shall be used when resources are being allocated to school.. [going on to describe a few exceptions: those where allocations are universal (for all schools), required by legislation and collective agreements, and finally where a better measure of need can be found.]

The LOI has to be used as filter for these discussions of where budget cuts are going to hit.

This is not going to be a popular tactic, but it is in accord to the Board’s own policies and history. It is also a just and judicious approach. As they wrestle with these hard questions, that’s what trustees must hang onto.

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