An Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) trustee is proposing increasing the budget for the upcoming school year by $255 million to hire more teachers and cap class sizes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rideau-Vanier/Capital trustee Lyra Evans proposed the budget amendment during a board meeting Tuesday night.
The money would include $180 million to hire 1,800 more elementary and high school teachers, allowing the board to cap class sizes at 15 students, and $45 million acquire more classroom space. It would also include extra money for custodial staff to enhance cleaning.
"Our current plan is not as safe as it should be to reopen," said Evans, who noted the provincial funding Education Minister Stephen Lecce "unlocked" last week doesn't come close to covering the board's current needs.
The OCDSB has until the end of the month to pass the 2020-21 budget. On Tuesday, trustees deferred a decision for another week, by which point they expect to hear from Ottawa Public Health about whether further measures are needed.
The board's chair has written to Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, with a number of questions about possible safety measures, including whether students in kindergarten to Grade 3 should also be wearing masks. Etches has been invited to attend the board's meeting next week.
Some trustees expressed frustration over what they characterized as an eleventh-hour budget decision.
"I'm frustrated as a parent that we're this far along in the summer without a budget passed for the board, without a clear understanding of what the plan is going to look like come Sept. 3," said Innes/Beacon Hill-Cyrville trustee Sandra Schwartz.
Board risks being replaced
While the OCDSB expects funding discussions with the province to continue into the fall, under Ontario's Education Act, school boards normally can't run a deficit without ministerial approval.
Last week, the ministry allowed boards across Ontario to run a two per cent operating deficit without such approval, but boards that run higher deficits risk being removed.
Evans believes the board should take that chance in order to have appropriate measures in place in time for the coming school year.
"Instead of demanding as a group what we all need to do this properly, we have been scared into silence. I believe this continued silence puts our kids at risk," Evans said.
But other trustees expressed uncertainty.
"I don't want to play chicken with the province at this time," said Schwartz. "I'm not prepared to take that risk. I don't believe that my community would be prepared for me to take that risk on behalf of their children."