Ontario school boards said Friday their reserve funds are already budgeted for high-priority initiatives not related to the COVID-19 pandemic and should not be used to lower class sizes and hire new teachers, as the government is asking them to do.
A group representing the province’s school boards also said they were not consulted before Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced a plan Thursday that would see boards access $500 million of their own savings to achieve physical distancing in classrooms.
Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said boards across the province were “frustrated and concerned” by the Progressive Conservative government’s plan.
“As Minister Lecce has often said, we are in unprecedented circumstances as a result of this pandemic, and we need an unprecedented response – something more than the use of reserve funds that normal prudent budgeting would allow.”
Lecce said Thursday the government wanted to offer school boards more flexibility to cut elementary class sizes to address pandemic safety concerns by accessing their surpluses.
He described the funds as “rainy day” savings that can help immediately. The government will also spend $50 million to update school ventilation systems, and another $18 million to hire principals and support staff to administer online learning.
Several teachers’ unions and many parents have been calling on the government to mandate smaller class sizes, especially in elementary school.
But Lecce said Friday the number of students in class is not what should be measured.
“The quantum is not the fundamental issue,” he said. “It’s the distancing. We want to ensure that distancing can be respected of at least one metre, coupled with all of the other preventative measures we’ve put in place to improve safety.”
On Friday, the interim director of Canada’s largest school board said using all of the boards’ reserves to cut class sizes was a “financial risk”.
Carlene Jackson issued the warning in a memo to Toronto District School Board trustees. She said the TDSB has already set all of its $131 million in reserve funding aside for future obligations, such as budget carryovers and ongoing projects.
“It would not be prudent or good financial management if we were to use a large amount of reserve funds to cover the entire cost of smaller class sizes,” Jackson said.
But she said board staff are looking at whether some of its reserves could be used to augment the TDSB’s portion of a previously announced $30 million fund for staffing to cut elementary class sizes to 15 to 20 students.
Meanwhile, the local public health unit doubled down on its calls for both the public and Catholic boards to reduce class sizes and enforce two-metre physical distancing in classrooms.
In a letter to trustees, Toronto Public Health suggested splitting classes in half – which it noted would require both more room and more staff.
The Greater Essex County District School Board, which serves one of the regions hardest hit by COVID-19, had already planned to dip into its reserve fund, spokesman Scott Scantlebury said.
The trustees voted earlier this week to approve drawing nearly $3.3 million from the reserve to cover expenses related to the pandemic for which no direct funding has been provided by the government.
But the board has yet to nail down what those expenditures will be, Scantlebury said, because the province keeps announcing new funding, even with the first day of school less than a month away.
“It’s like trying to play chess with someone who keeps tipping the board,” he said.
To account for Thursday’s announcement, the Halton District School Board said it would be extending a deadline for parents to opt into or out of sending their kids back to class.
“A revised date will be communicated to families,” the board tweeted.
On Friday, the Ministry of Education announced it would allow boards to stagger the start of school year, with different grades returning on different days.
Meanwhile, Ontario is reporting 92 new cases of COVID-19 today with one new death due to the virus.