There was no relief in sight for the tens of thousands of Ottawa students who are already reeling under the weight of provincial budget cuts, as the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) launched its annual budget process May 29.
The good news was that senior staff have managed to postpone further cuts to the OCDSB's remaining classroom programs for one more year. But after losing an estimated $172 million in provincial grants since 1997, the Board could only hold off further drastic classroom cuts with what Education Director Jim Grieve described as a “treading water” budget:
* In a desperate effort to avoid slashing special education, English as a Second Language, French immersion, and school construction and maintenance, all of which are underfunded by the province, the Board had to spend all its remaining financial reserves and reallocate dollars from school maintenance and other pressing needs.
If you had to manage your home finances the same way, it would mean working harder at your job for 20% less pay, cashing your RRSPs, gutting your savings account, then trying to choose between food, fuel and roof repairs - with your boss looking over your shoulder and telling you to spend your money more efficiently.
* Senior staff could find no new funds to meet the urgent classroom needs that have been ignored over the past three years, as the Board tried to work within the confines of the province's education (de)funding formula.
* To maintain current classroom programs, inadequate as they are, the Board will have to incur a $61 million deficit over the next two years, unless the pro vincial defunding formula is changed or scrapped.
The province increased its grant to the Board by only 2.7% this year, not nearly enough to cover cost-of-living increases in everything from construction materials to office supplies, swelling enrolment resulting from Ottawa's burgeoning population, and rising fuel costs.
Although this year's school budget holds the line on most of the Board's remaining classroom programs, OCDSB staff don't fully acknowledge the heartbreaking impact of the budget cuts that have already taken place. That's why Our Schools, Our Communities is launching the Stories Project, an effort to gather front-line information on the impact of provincial defunding through the eyes of parents, students, teachers, principals, and anyone else with an interest in their local school.
“My child's class last year was chaotic because the kids had a broad range of different special needs,” wrote one parent. “In a grade one/two split, one-third were ESL students. One-third had been identified with other special needs. One child with severe health problems needed assistance. While the teacher was one of the most skilled, capable, and dedicated I have ever had the privilege to know, it was too big a load to ask anyone to handle.”
“I see 170 students in the course of a week. I generally work 12-hour days, being at school around 7:30 a.m. and taking work home with me,” wrote one teacher who has accepted a job in Kuwait next year, rather than face another year of budget cuts in Ontario. “I never take a lunch break; I have kids in every day for piano lessons and extra help. I deal with intermediate classes with over 30 students in them, half of whom have special needs in terms of academic achievement, behaviour problems, or emotional needs.”
“These last few years have been tough on me. But by far, the worst part has been seeing the students suffer,” she wrote. “I feel horrible calling parents who can little afford it and suggesting they hire a tutor. With the loss of guidance time at the intermediate level, we have seen an increase in bullying. Students who need closer monitoring and guidance with study skills just aren't getting the one-on-one attention that they need.”
These and other front-line stories show that provincial defunding has reached every child in every classroom in our community. If Ontario doesn't reinvest in our schools, the situation will only get worse.
Mitchell Beer is Chair of Our Schools, Our Communities (OSOC), a volunteer organization concerned about education cutbacks in Ottawa. For more information on school budgets, contact OSOC at 594-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can reach the Stories Project at the same phone number, or at email@example.com.