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Public school board warns of 'very difficult decisions' with $9M deficit

The Greater Essex County District School Board says it has a $9-million deficit.  (Chris Ensing/CBC - image credit)
The Greater Essex County District School Board says it has a $9-million deficit. (Chris Ensing/CBC - image credit)

The public school board said it will need to make 'very difficult decisions' to address a $9 million budget deficit as it reviews every program and department for efficiencies.

Superintendent of Business and treasurer of the Greater Essex County District School Board (GECDSB) Shelley Armstrong presented an update on the 2023/2024 budget to the school board's trustees Tuesday night.

The board was asked to approve operating with a $9 million deficit, which is two per cent of its expected operating budget. According to the Education Act, if the deficit is more than one per cent of the board's operating allocation or the surplus, the board needs to send and get approval on an in-year deficit request from the minister.

The board agreed to reach out with this request and also ask for more funding.

Armstrong warned that the deficit would need to be covered by the board's surplus, but that that represents a third of what's left in that reserve.

"It must be stressed that this is not a sustainable way to operate," she said.

She painted a stark picture of the board's current finances and said that asking the provincial government for more funding isn't likely to change anything.

"Asking for more funding is not going to solve this problem," said Armstrong.

Armstrong said that asking for more funding from the Ministry of Education likely comes with a request to find efficiencies in the board's budget.

She said that 80 per cent of the budget goes to staff.

"I'm trying to squeeze blood out of a stone," said Armstrong, when looking for savings in the other 20 per cent of the budget.

Shelley Armstrong is the superintendent of business and treasurer of the Greater Essex County District School Board (GECDSB). She presented the budget update at a school board meeting this week.
Shelley Armstrong is the superintendent of business and treasurer of the Greater Essex County District School Board (GECDSB). She presented the budget update at a school board meeting this week.

Shelley Armstrong is the superintendent of business and treasurer of the Greater Essex County District School Board (GECDSB). She presented the budget update at a school board meeting this week. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

"Very difficult decisions are going to be contemplated and implemented in order to address the structural nature of the board's deficit."

Armstrong said that all programs, departments and staffing complements will be reviewed for efficiencies.

"I'm not trying to alarm people that work at the board," she said, but stressed that they will have to look at the amount of the budget that is allocated to staff.

In an email Thursday, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Education said that the government "continues to invest the highest amount ever for public education in Ontario history."

It said the GECDSB has received $457 million this year. Since 2018, it says that Ontario classrooms have also been able to add 7,500 educators, which includes 3,500 educational assistants.

Board to review French Immersion, Special Education programs

There are several cost pressures that have been identified creating this deficit, according to Armstrong.

Those pressures include:

  • Special education: 18 full-time educational assistants were added.

  • Student transportation.

  • Temporary accommodations like portable replacements, acquisition and relocation.

  • Higher facility operating costs for things like custodial cleaning supplies, natural gas and water consumption and snow removal.

Armstrong mentioned looking at how the French immersion, International Baccalaureate and special education programs are offered as possible cost saving measures.

"We offer a Tesla model which isn't to say that's not what parents want for their children or what we don't want as educators but it's really expensive and the funding will never compensate us ever for that," said Armstrong when talking about the special education programs for the boards most vulnerable students.

The board chair recently wrote to the Minister of Education saying that the current staffing crunch made it impossible to provide students with special needs the education they deserve.

The special education budget is expected to operate $11.3-million over budget this year according to the board.

Trustee Connie Buckler said the board's highest expenses are absenteeism of staff and special education. She said the board needs to look at a way to get that number down.

Union says funding isn't keeping pace with inflation or needs

Mario Spagnuolo, local president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, said that he is "concerned, but not surprised."

President of the local Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario Mario Spagnuolo says he anticipates more parents will enrol their kinds in online learning due to the growing number of cases in Ontario.
President of the local Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario Mario Spagnuolo says he anticipates more parents will enrol their kinds in online learning due to the growing number of cases in Ontario.

President of the local Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario Mario Spagnuolo says he's concerned about where the board will choose to cut, with the majority of the budget allocated to staffing. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

"If the funding formula is not fixed and is not updated to what the students need of 2023 and 2024, this is going to continue to happen and get worse because inflation continues to rise for everybody ... and the funding has not kept up with inflation," he said.

Spagnuolo said he's concerned about where the board will choose to cut, especially since majority of the budget is staff.

"Those are the people most needed in a system that has higher and higher needs," he said.

"We don't have enough staff as it is right now."

But he's not particularly worried about his members at this time, noting that there is a collective agreement that needs to be followed.

As for reviewing special education, Spagnuolo said "it's a sad day in Ontario, and it's a sad day in Windsor-Essex County when we're going to be saving money on the backs of students with special needs."

Board chair Gale Hatfield said she had a call with the minister of education Stephen Lecce recently, and that "he recognized cost pressures particularly in the areas of staffing and transportation came up as well."

She added that Lecce, "certainly didn't offer anything positive in the way of relief" and that she didn't really get "anything substantial" out of the call when it comes to problems with the funding formula.

This revised budget will go to the Ministry of Education on Dec.15 and an update on the final budget will be given to trustees of the board at the February operations and finance committee meeting.