The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has been, and continues to be, profoundly important to Canadian democracy…. It is virtually unique in its breadth of ideas and its depth of research.
- Ed Broadbent
Skip to main content
The spirit of local democracy is alive and well in the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), half a month after Ontario Education Minister Elizabeth Witmer swept away the community's elected public school trustees and replaced them with an appointed supervisor.
By the second day of the school year, as Our Schools/Our Selves went to press, a furious community reaction was already building against the first $4.7 million in cutbacks announced by Witmer's appointee, retired municipal administrator Merv Beckstead.
The cuts to special education programs and principal positions were only sufficient to cover 20% of the OCDSB's $23.3 million budget deficit - or less, once Beckstead began increasing costs by hiring his own coterie of spinmasters and administrators and adding his own annual salary, estimated at $250,000 to $300,000, to the Board's financial woes. But already, school communities were organizing desperately to protect the last vestiges of quality classroom programming in a school board that has already lost more than $100 million in front-line services since 1997, courtesy of the Ontario government's education (de)funding formula.
In the first week of school in Ottawa:
While the Ottawa-Carleton DSB was the unlikely leading edge of the resistance to provincial takeovers - first to file a deficit budget, rather than adopting further devastating classroom cuts, first to become the target of a politically-tainted forensic "audit", first to be placed under supervision, first to go to court - other communities weren't far behind. At press time, Toronto District School Board trustees had held a first, discouraging meeting with their provincial supervisor, and Witmer's hired gun had just moved into offices at the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. Across the province, one in five K-12 students - a total of 430,000 children - were attending school in boards where democratically-elected trustees had been kicked aside by appointees with little or no education background, all in the interest of cutting a combined total of $130 million in student programs and services.
Although the immediate outlook for Ontario students was bleak, there was widespread agreement that Witmer and her Cabinet colleagues were running a huge political risk by taking over the day-to-day operations of three large urban school boards. "No longer will Queen's Park be able to hide behind local school trustees when the heavy lifting of school closures and program cuts has to be done," wrote Globe and Mail columnist Murray Campbell Aug. 28. "From now on, everything falls on Ms. Witmer's shoulders."
While some public sympathy shifted from the trustees to the province after financial investigators reported on the financial affairs of the three deficit boards, Campbell predicted that "that support is likely very soft. Potentially more damaging for the government is that there is no clear sense yet of how this will end. Ms. Witmer has sent her first advisers to Vietnam, but she has not been able to articulate what victory looks like."
Ottawa? You've got to be kidding!
At first glance, Ottawa was the last place to expect a school budget rebellion to take hold.
Before the forced amalgamation of Ontario school boards in 1997, the Ottawa and Carleton Boards of Education both offered classroom programs that went well beyond the minimum available in some Ontario communities. The Ottawa Board, in particular, had received national recognition for its special education programs, and had developed strong supports for English as a Second Language students and children at risk. Surrounding rural school boards had a history of referring high-needs students to Ottawa, to avoid delivering mandated programs that would lead to controversial local tax increases.
While critics dismissed Ottawa schools for their "Cadillac" programming, defenders described the Cadillac as ambulance, providing students with their only decent chance at a brighter future. Even so, both predecessor boards made fierce program cuts through the late 1980s and the first half of the 1990s.
When the amalgamated board convened in early 1998, there was little to suggest a change in direction. The province's education defunding formula had just been put in place, and the majority of OCDSB trustees seemed likely to follow government orders - some of them because they saw no practical alternative, others with barely-concealed enthusiasm. As the new political reality took shape, it became clear that the board consisted of four community votes - trustees who did not operate as a coherent bloc, but could be expected to support most reasonable decisions in favour of school programs - five largely pro-government trustees, and three board members on whom school communities could sometimes rely for sporadic support.
Under the guise of harmonizing the programs available at former Ottawa and former Carleton schools - a process that, in many ways, is still not complete - the OCDSB closed community schools, slashed special education programs, and ripped away at programs that had provided a safety net for the city's most vulnerable students. By mid-1998, some parents were already looking ahead to the 2000 school board elections to make a stand for quality school programs.
Over the next two years, Our Schools, Our Communities (OSOC) sought candidates in the eight electoral zones that were in need of community trustees, while working with school communities across Ottawa-Carleton to develop a broader understanding of the provincial defunding formula and its impact on classroom programming. Throughout, the group made it clear that it wasn't looking for bloc voters who would support a fixed political position - the goal was to elect thoughtful, independent trustees who would go wherever the evidence took them on any issue. As the November, 2000 election drew near, OSOC compiled a list of endorsed candidates and worked to assemble and train campaign teams, organize basic election resources, raise funds for individual candidates, and direct volunteers to the campaigns that needed them most.
Grassroot election campaigns are won with hard work, solid organization, lots of shoe leather - and, for most candidates and canvassers in a late fall campaign, repeated heavy doses of cold medication. But sometimes, an unexpected opportunity falls in your lap.
By the time nominations closed in mid-October, community candidates were in place and campaigns were under way in most of the OCDSB's electoral zones. But late that month, when incumbent trustees decided to ignore overwhelming evidence against closing six elementary schools, they unleashed dozens of angry campaign volunteers who were promptly referred to key trustee campaigns. The campaigns were fought on the full range of issues and crises resulting from provincial defunding - from downtown school closures, to overcrowded suburban schools, to special education and ESL cutbacks - and it's unlikely that the closures were enough on their own to sway voter opinion against the incumbent trustees. But the wide margins of victory in three key zones were partly attributable to the volunteers who came forward from targeted schools. For better or worse, the perception remains that the 2000 election was won and lost on the issue of school closures.
The OSOC effort was far from seamless. The endorsement process ran into some serious difficulties, and fundraising fell considerably short of the goal of covering all costs for endorsed candidates. But the campaign was still a clear victory for school communities. Although the new majority on the Ottawa board did not constitute itself as a formal caucus, and is actually quite a bit more divided than its critics believe, eight out of 12 trustees usually vote with the community on most issues.
'Treading water in the North Atlantic'
Two weeks after taking office, based on the likelihood of steady new enrolment growth in targeted neighbourhoods, the new trustees voted to reopen five of the six schools that had been closed by the previous board. They then began a process of research, analysis and consultation that led into a full-scale assault on provincial defunding.
By the time the budget revolt erupted into province-wide headlines, the OCDSB had already been operating for a year on a set of "draft estimates", after refusing to adopt a budget recommended by senior staff. In introducing the 2001 staff budget, Education Director Jim Grieve commented that "we're treading water, not in the backyard pool, but in the North Atlantic. This is pretty serious drownproofing." Special education parents, in particular, responded that it's hard to tread water with lead weights strapped to your feet - or to claim that a school system is still afloat when it allows thousands of children to sink below the surface.
On July 25, 2001, trustees defeated the staff budget and begged then-education minister Janet Ecker to appoint an investigator to review the board's financial affairs. In a letter to Ecker that evening, OCDSB Chair Jim Libbey argued that an approved budget "would perpetuate inadequate services to our students, especially students with special needs and ESL students, thereby failing to satisfy our moral obligations to our students, and possibly failing to satisfy legal requirements under the Education Act."
Trustees were also unwilling to "commit our last $20 million in reserves to 'balance' the budget for 2001-2002 with no reasonable expectation that help might be on the way, either for this year or future years," added Libbey, a chartered accountant and senior federal public servant who was first elected trustee in 1997.
In an attachment to Libbey's letter, trustees listed a series of questions an investigator could ask to get an accurate picture of the board's finances. Ecker accused the trustees of political posturing, directed them to implement the "draft estimates", and went on vacation.
A $180 million funding gap
Three months later, the board published the second edition of Formula Facts, a four-page report to taxpayers that was essentially the first needs-based budget produced by an Ontario public school board.
"If Ottawa students ever had frills, they are long gone," the report stated. "OCDSB programs are designed to meet the real educational needs of today's students, including those with learning and physical disabilities, English as a Second Language requirements and intellectual abilities ranging from below average to gifted. Funding cuts mean poorer quality programs and services."
Formula Facts 2 showed that the Ottawa and Carleton Boards' combined budget of $556 million in 1997 would have equated to $627 million in 2001, after accounting for a 2.8% increase in enrolment and inflation of 9.7% over the four-year period. On that basis, the board's 2001/02 grant of $504 million represented a budget cut of $123 million, or 24.4%, since amalgamation. Formula Facts 2 also called for increased funding to cover realistic and long-overdue salary settlements, and pre-amalgamation budget gaps in special education, learning technology, transportation, and facility renewal.
Overall, trustees identified $180 million in provincial defunding, including:
'Which law would you like us to break?'
The province largely ignored Formula Facts 2, and local columnists and editorial writers have taken great delight in ridiculing trustees for the report's $180 million bottom line. But the calculations were in line with other analyses of the defunding formula.
In a January 30, 2002 news conference, the president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association (OPSBA) announced that the province's public school boards would need $1.1 billion in new funding to sustain current services for 2002/03 - and another $1.0 billion to begin repairing and rebuilding school facilities.
"By seizing complete control of education funding, the provincial government has assumed absolute responsibility for ensuring adequate funding of education," stated Liz Sandals, who resigned from OPSBA in June to seek the Liberal nomination in the Guelph-area riding held by a longtime political associate, Social Services Minister Brenda Elliott.
"School boards are legally responsible for developing a balanced budget, within the funding provided by the ministry," she said. "However, boards are also charged with the legal responsibility of conforming to class size and work load requirements in the Education Act, special education legislation, the Labour Relations Act, the Occupational Health and Safety Act, and the Pay Equity Act, to name but a few. School boards' question to the provincial government is rapidly becoming, 'which law would you like us to break?'"
Sandals cited Education Minister Ecker's own acknowledgement to Cabinet that public school boards faced a $6.8 billion deferred maintenance backlog, and that 16 boards had already exhausted their reserves to balance their budgets. "Let me be clear," Sandals told the Queen's Park media corps. "The school boards in this province are bankrupt, or very close to being bankrupt."
Meanwhile, in late August, 2001, Our Schools, Our Communities had released The Lifeline Budget (www.osoc-ottawa.org/osoc/budget/LifeLineBudget.pdf), a precursor to Formula Facts 2 that was subsequently published by the Caledon Institute of Social Policy. Based largely on accepted ratios for psychologists, social workers and speech pathologists, and on industry standards for ongoing investment in facilities maintenance, OSOC listed 30 priority areas - from education assistants to guidance counsellors, from school breakfast programs to new school construction - where provincial reinvestment was most urgently needed.
"Adoption of the Lifeline Budget would restore funding of about $1,730 for each of the 73,125 students in the OCDSB," OSOC stated. "Even then, the equivalent spending province-wide would only move Ontario from 56th to 47th rank in per-pupil education spending among North America's 63 state, provincial and territorial jurisdictions." The comparison was particularly relevant at a time when Ontario is competing with nearby U.S. states for qualified teachers and other staff.
On a collision course
But despite a solid working relationship with parents and strong community support, the OCDSB was clearly on a collision course with the province. The board's 2002 budget process began with a series of community consultations in January, followed by early release February 5 of a balanced budget draft in which senior staff called for another $33.7 million in cuts - $12.1 million in facilities and transportation, $11.6 million in special education, $6.4 in school operations, and $3.6 million in central administration.
This time around, Education Director Grieve was said to have instructed senior staff not to sugar-coat the budget cuts. And his public assessment of the board's financial situation was more sober. "No choices we could make at this juncture are recommended easily or without causing substantial change," he said. "However, schools will open in September, teachers will teach, students will learn and achieve. This is our calling. We will do all of these things to the best of our professional ability within the given resources."
The special education community responded that one-third of the staff budget cuts targeted the board's most vulnerable students. Early analysis indicated that 4,500 children - 40% of the board's special ed population - would lose services. The cuts were proposed at a time when more than 3,000 children were already waiting for special ed assessments, in a community that had once been proud that it had no waiting list for students with learning disabilities, behavioural disorders, or other special needs. In Ottawa in 2002, some children had been waiting up to five years for assessment, and at least one parent had been told her son would not be prioritized until he was suicidal.
On February 11, less than a week into Ottawa's budget debate, Ontario's Council of Directors of Education (CODE) released a scathing letter to Ecker that warned of a looming crisis in school funding. The letter, signed by the directors of all 72 Ontario school boards, cited local funding shortfalls related to the staff salary gap, special education, student transportation, and the need to sustain school programs in spite of declining enrolments.
"As the Chief Executive Officers of the District School Boards, directors of education have the responsibility to inform you of this crisis and request that you inform government of their frustration and the fact that they have exhausted alternatives to manage according to provincial guidelines," CODE wrote. "Reshuffling of funds within the formula will not solve the problem. If service is to be maintained at present levels, more funds are required. There is no other obvious or easy solution."
On March 4, the OCDSB adopted an "accountability budget" that included more than $9 million in budget cuts, but called for at least $50 million in additional provincial funding. The governing Conservative party was in the midst of a hard-fought leadership campaign, and there was some hope that a new Cabinet would pay closer attention to the school funding crisis.
But as late winter rolled into spring and leadership pronouncements gave way to a Throne Speech and a budget, it became clear that spin would triumph over substance. The government's new education spending fell far short of the $1.1 to $2.1 billion recommended by OPSBA. And most of the money was directed to flashy new initiatives that were apparently designed to capture public attention (and votes), while neatly sidestepping the grinding, day-to-day funding crisis that had been so meticulously documented by trustees and parents.
In Ottawa, after another 2 1/2 months of waiting, lobbying and begging for a substantive response from the province, trustees filed a $22.3 million deficit budget with the Ministry of Education. The budget motion renewed the board's commitment to "refuse to eliminate necessary and valued programs and services in order to compensate for a deeply flawed funding formula", and raised the possibility of legal action to reverse four years of underfunding in salaries and benefits, facilities operations, maintenance and renewal, and transportation.
Witmer responded by waiting out the deadline for boards to submit balanced budgets, then appointing a forensic auditor to review the OCDSB's finances.
Later in the summer, Witmer would endlessly repeat the mantra that 69 out of 72 school boards had managed to balance their budgets. But by late spring, there was evidence of widespread revolt - and revulsion - on the part of a dozen or more public boards that saw no way to avoid deficits without further dramatic program cuts.
But while public attention and Witmer's venom were focussed on the three remaining deficit boards, the depth of the crisis was reflected in statements by many of the boards with nominally balanced budgets, many of which insisted they had adopted their budgets under duress.
The Hamilton Summit
The various voices against provincial defunding came together at a summit meeting in Hamilton July 18. While trustees from about a dozen school boards met in private to develop a common response to the crisis, parents from 10 boards representing nearly 40% of the school-age population adopted a declaration that acknowledged the common ground between the deficit boards and those with nominally balanced budgets.
"Some trustees judged that their constituents would not support a decision that took them down the road toward breaking the law, and however unjust that law may be, we are not prepared to second-guess that judgement," parents stated. "However, in community after community, trustees' impassioned pleas for adequate funding made it clear that local expectations also include adequately-funded schools and school programs."
Faced with a wall of opposition from trustees, parents and school communities, Witmer and Premier Ernie Eves focussed their attention on the three deficit boards, while claiming the broader funding crisis would be addressed in a November report from the Education Equality Task Force, chaired by University of Guelph President Mordechai Rozanski. By early September, there was word that Rozanski had already ruled out changes to the defunding formula that would address some of the major needs in large urban boards. And in any case, for children in Ottawa, Toronto and Hamilton, even the most extensive repairs to the 2003/04 school budget would come one year too late.
The takeovers: Democracy under attack
In line with provincial legislation, Witmer hired auditors to investigate the finances of the three deficit boards, then appointed supervisors to deliver balanced budgets. In Ottawa, trustees and parents argued that auditor Al Rosen had failed in his mandate to produce a complete financial review, by looking at the OCDSB's spending but not its revenues. The auditor also identified at least $34.6 million in new provincial funding that the board should have received for 2002/03 - more than enough to wipe out a $22.3 million deficit, and remove any pretext for appointing a supervisor. Incredibly, the auditor never added up the total - a task that would not have been beyond the abilities of a Grade 5 student with a calculator.
When he turned his attention to the Toronto DSB, Rosen reportedly told trustees he had no intention of consulting parents or touring schools to gather "Mickey Mouse, anecdotal evidence".
"Now we have the spectre of accountants running around lecturing school trustees on how to run school boards and eliminate deficits," commented Toronto Star Business Editor David Crane in early September. "Auditor Al Rosen has become the enforcer of flawed provincial policies, leaving a trail of ill-conceived and incompetent reports on how to balance school board books...
"Any idiot can balance the books by cutting spending, regardless of the consequences. But we need people with wisdom to make intelligent choices, not hackers. Rosen, for example, seems to fancy himself as an expert on education, but his targets include special education, parenting centres, school maintenance, language education and non-classroom activities such as outdoor nature and environmental studies, as well as adult education and the use of computers in the classroom."
For community trustees and parent volunteers in Ottawa, Toronto and Hamilton, the second half of the summer was a blur of overlapping crises, and the fall promised more of the same. In contrast to the Eves government's early promise to turn down the heat on education, the province has made a mockery of local democracy, leaving anxious school communities to cast around for clues while appointed supervisors decide their fate. Conservative commentators claim the government allowed ample time and money for school boards to make the transition to a new funding model - the subtext is that it would somehow have been easier to gut special education, ESL, classroom supports, and local community schools if trustees had been willing to wield the axe.
Most ironic of all is to see the government's supporters bemoan the political polarization that greeted the new school year, seven years after the Conservatives' first education minister, John Snobelen, pledged to "create a useful crisis" in our schools.
In the months ahead, trustees and parents will have to continue reminding politicians and voters of demographer David Foot's observation that you don't do more with less - you do less with less. While the Eves Cabinet throws all its resources into a pre-election battle with dissident school trustees, parent volunteers will have their work cut out for them if they hope to keep up.
|What you can do
Successful lawsuits cost far more money than most front-line parent groups are accustomed to raising. And a huge volunteer effort will be needed to explain the school funding crisis and earn public support for the three deficit school boards in Ontario. Here's how you can help:
Sum In the three communities with deficit boards, get involved with your local parent organization. Wherever you live, give generously to the legal fight - post-dated cheques are welcome! Contacts:
Ottawa: Our Schools, Our Communities, Box 4804, Station E, Ottawa, ON K1S 5H9, (613) 594-8281, email@example.com.
Toronto: Toronto Parent Network, (416) 738-8116, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hamilton: Jessica Brennan, 71 Skyline Dr., Dundas, ON L9H 3S3, (905) 627-3820, email@example.com.
Sum Write to Education Minister Elizabeth Witmer, your local newspaper, and newspapers in Ottawa, Toronto and Hamilton. Express your support for the deficit boards, and for adequate school funding. Contact information: www.osoc-ottawa.org.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has been, and continues to be, profoundly important to Canadian democracy…. It is virtually unique in its breadth of ideas and its depth of research.
- Ed Broadbent