Province’s planned spending not enough to deal with ‘crisis’ in education, says Scarborough MPP

Scarborough Southwest NDP MPP Doly Begum said an analysis released earlier this week on the provincial government’s planned spending on education should help provide residents with a better understanding of what she calls a “crisis” in the system.

On Monday, Nov. 14, the Financial Accountability Office of Ontario (FAO) released an in-depth analysis of the Ministry of Education’s spending plan as set out in the 2022 Ontario Budget, as well as the 2022-23 Expenditure Estimates. The FAO’s Ministry of Education: Spending Plan Review reveals gaps in how the Ontario government’s planned education spending will keep up with rising inflation through to 2028.

“I’m thankful to the FAO for coming out and really giving us the true numbers,” said Begum. “Because we already got the fall economic statement from the Minister of Finance. But If you look at the crisis we’re facing in the education system, and the fight that education workers are fighting right now, that financial statement does not reflect the reality of the province.”

According to the FAO report, Ontario plans to invest $21.2 billion in education sector infrastructure over the next six years—an eight per cent increase from the funds allocated for infrastructure in the previous 10 years (2012-2013 to 2021-2022).

This looks like an improvement, however, after adjusting for inflation, the FAO concluded that this is in fact a 14 percent, or $3 billion, decline in spending as it relates to the value of the Canadian dollar in 2021.

Begum said the report estimates a 0.8 percent annual growth in enrolment for students between kindergarten and Grade 12, and that needs to also be taken into account as it will create an even greater decline in provincial spending on education.

“The FAO is looking at this and saying there’s going to be a lot of problems in the next couple of years because an increase in the amount of students means an increase in the amount of school workers, and then you’re looking at growth of their income as well,” said Begum. “All of that is going to add up and we’re falling short in making an assumption of what the investment needs to be.”

In their 2022 budget, Ontario Ministry of Education projected that spending will grow at an annual rate of 3.6 percent. FAO’s calculations have a projection of 4.5 percent between now and 2028 “based on current program design”. This spending gap between the two projections adds up to $400 million in 2023, ”increasing to $2 billion in 2027-2028”, the FAO said.

The report estimates an overall shortfall of $6 billion in the Ministry of Education’s spending plan.

This can only be fixed through additional funding or by cutting costs.

Begum said cost cutting will put further strain on the education system particular when it comes to repairing and/or upgrading school buildings and facilities.

“In the east end, we have schools where the repair backlog is so high–highest in the city,” said Begum. “Crumbling ceilings. They don’t have proper windows or proper ventilation. Washrooms that are falling apart. Gyms that were made for half the amount of students.”

She expressed disappointment that with the excessive amount of needs, there’s still a massive shortfall in the spending budget.

“Maybe the Minister of Education needs to come and visit some of the schools in our communities, which have terrible conditions, just to see the conditions in which our students are learning in,” said Begum.

The FAO also reported that compensation for school staff is expected to grow from $18.8 billion to $21 billion over the next five years, accounting for about 88 percent of all school board operating spending. This doesn’t mean significantly higher wages. Growth in compensation spending is highly dependent on enrolment levels which, as it increases, will demand the hiring of more school board workers. This number is expected to grow from the current 289,000 workers to 300,000 in 2027-28.

FAO’s projections assume education workers’ wages will increase at the historical average wage growth rate of 2.2 percent annually. However, a current event that will impact the overall compensation funds allocated is the ongoing negotiations between the Ministry of Education and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents school support workers in boards across the province.

Earlier this month, CUPE declined a 2.5 per cent annual salary increase to workers making less than $43,000, and 1.5 per cent for workers making more than that, partly because they reject a two-tiered system of negotiation.

It is safe to assume that negotiations will likely conclude with a wage increase that is higher than average as the 55,000 CUPE represented workers are preparing for a strike which could begin as early as Monday, Nov. 21.

Due to these uncertain factors, the FAO also released estimates that assume higher average wage increases. They predict inflation will increase by 4.5 percent every year for the next three years. If education workers receive an average annual wage increase of 3.2 percent over this period, followed by a return to historical wage growth of 2.2 percent, FAO says that school board compensation spending would in turn increase by $113 million in 2022-23.

This figure would grow to $620 million in 2027-28, increasing FAO projections for school board compensation by $2.7 billion over the next six years.

Assuming the Ontario government attempts to slightly keep up with inflation and increases education workers’ wages by 4.2 percent annually over three years—followed by a return to historical average wage growth of 2.2 per cent—then projections for school board compensation would “increase by $226 million in 2022-23, growing to $1.3 billion in 2027-28” according to the report. This would further increase the Ministry of Education’s compensation spending by $5.5 billion over six years.

Negotiations between CUPE and the Ministry of Education appear to currently be at a standstill, but there is a deadline of 5 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 20, to finalize a deal before strike action can be legally taken. Negotiations are expected to continue over the weekend in an effort to avoid a strike.

For more information on the FAO’s Ministry of Education: Spending Plan Review, please go to https://www.fao-on.org/en/Blog/Publications/2022-education-estimates

Amarachi Amadike, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Beach Metro Community News