Trustees with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) passed a $1-billion budget Wednesday to fund public school services during what promises to be an unprecedented school year transformed by the coronavirus pandemic.
The budget projects the school board will run a $17.7-million deficit — its largest ever — due to increased costs related to COVID-19, as well as extra spending stemming from renegotiated collective agreements and revenue losses caused by a drop in international student enrolment.
The deficit will be paid for by drawing on the board's reserve funds, a situation made possible by changes from the Ontario Ministry of Education that allow school boards to spend additional money from their reserves on operating budgets.
The vote to approve the budget for the 2020-2021 school year comes just days before a provincial deadline of Sept. 1, and makes Ottawa's largest school board one of the last districts in the province to finalize its spending plans.
OCDSB education director Camille Williams-Taylor said the safety of students and staff guided the decision-making process more so than educational programming.
"We have made the safety of our students coming in [and] the safety of our staff coming in the priority, but also the sustainability of it as well," said Williams-Taylor.
"We're not just looking at September, we're looking at a whole school year."
The budget calls for a spending increase of $28.1 million, or about three per cent, compared to last year. The biggest chunk is taken up by wage increases and extra benefit spending included in new labour contracts ratified at the beginning of the year.
It includes previously-approved increases in the number of teachers and support staff, investments in more specialized classes for students with special needs and additional funding for student mental health.
The budget also sets aside $4 million for unforeseen expenses related to COVID-19, including personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, computer technology and modifications to work environments.
Chief financial officer Mike Carson said that fund will be bolstered by an additional $7 million OCDSB expects to receive from a newly-announced $2 billion federal back-to-school allotment that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed on the same day the board passed its budget.
Carson said the new federal funding won't change the budget's spending amounts but will be available as needs arise.
"It certainly helps address some of the financial risks," said Carson.
Trustees vote down proposal for more teachers
Trustees rejected an amendment put forward by Rideau-Vanier/Capital trustee Lyra Evans that called for investing an additional $255 million to hire additional teachers and to rent classroom space so that the board could reduce class sizes to 15 students per class. The amendment didn't include any provisions to offset the increased spending, meaning it would be added to the deficit.
That led multiple trustees who opposed the motion to argue it was unrealistic and simply a political statement.
"I do not want to be standing at a funeral for one of our children and the parent asks me, 'Did you do everything you could to have prevented this?'" said Evans. "Because if I don't support a motion like this, I don't think I would be able to look them in the eyes and say, 'Yes, I did.'"
Carson said such a large deficit wouldn't be approved by the province. The Ministry of Education has the power to reject school board budgets that include a deficit higher than one per cent of the overall budget, although it increased the limit to two percent for the coming year.
Approving such a budget would run the risk of the province appointing a supervisor to take over board's financial affairs, Kanata trustee Christine Boothby warned.
"I am really worried that a lot of the good work that this board has done over the last five years would be reversed," said Boothby.
The budget motion passed by the board included language calling on the province to "commit to making school boards whole" with respect to any existing and future funding shortfalls arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. The budget motion also called for further advice from the Ontario's Chief Medical Officer David Williams about COVID-19 risk reduction for schools.
Reversal on SRO issue
One of the flash points of the meeting was a previous budget amendment passed by trustees that would have pulled $95,000 in funding from two school resource officers (SROs) at two urban high schools. The board voted two weeks ago to redirect the money toward its urban priority high school framework, which funds programs for marginalized students.
The decision to effectively defund the dedicated police officers who work at Gloucester High School and Ridgemont High School proved unpopular with some parents.
College trustee Rob Campbell said he didn't realize when he voted in favour of the amendment that it would take away the local school administration's ability to continue to fund the SRO program if it chose to.
On Wednesday, trustees reversed their decision by an 8-3 vote and restored funding for the two SROs.
The decision came after several members of the public debated the merits of the school resource officers program during public delegations at the beginning of the meeting.
Marty Carr, vice-chair of the Ridgemont High School's parent council, told trustees that the SRO at her child's school plays a vital role in supporting vulnerable students.
"The dedicated SRO is there to build relationships with the students and their families to ensure extra support for these students, including someone they can confide in whether they are a victim, a perpetrator or someone seeking advice," Carr said.
But several others, including two former OCDSB students and a mother from the community, urged trustees to stay the course.
Sophie Chen, who graduated from Gloucester High School in 2017, said the SRO at her school frightened students.
"I went to a school where we struggled to receive new art supplies, new textbooks were not that common and our science labs were outdated. All of this while my school prioritized spending money on an SRO who did nothing but roam the halls and instil fear in students," said Chen. "To me, this is a significant display of waste of money and resources."
Amran Ali, who represented the Canadian Somali Mothers' Association, called for a review of the SRO program.
"The police do not make us feel safe. We feel being overpoliced and underserved," said Ali. "The money that's spent on the SRO program can better be spent on mental health support and social supports for the students."
Innes/Beacon Hill-Cyrville trustee Sandra Schwartz — who opposed defunding for the SROs after originally voting in favour — said she looks forward to reviewing the entire SRO program at some point in the future.