Public board chair says she's 'concerned' about provincial cuts in wake of budget decision

The chair of the Greater Essex County District School Board says she's concerned about the possibility the province will get involved in the management of the school board, after trustees unanimously approved running a deficit for the next school year.

Gale Hatfield worries the province could step in and make cuts, a sentiment echoed by others at the board meeting on Wednesday.

Trustee Ron LeClair said he's concerned the option the board chose "will appear to be a victory in the short term."

On Wednesday, trustees pushed back on cutting jobs in the name of reducing the projected deficit for the 2024-25 school year. With their direction, staff will prepare a budget for the year that includes a $6.4-million deficit.

Staff have already taken other measures to reduce the deficit, including eliminating some teacher positions as part of an realignment amid declining enrollment and cutting administration expenses.

Staff had recommended cutting the equivalent of 20 full-time positions, including social workers, student support worker, a psychologist and speech language pathologists.

But trustees laid the blame for the problem at the foot of the provincial government, saying underfunding was responsible for the shortfall.

"Not for a split second do I believe that our current budget deficit is the result of our choices, our board," said Trustee Kim McKinley, who made the motion. "Our board has always been a fiscally responsible board for as long as I have been a part of it and for many years even prior to my becoming a trustee for this board."

With the projected deficit, the board will have to submit a plan to the province for the elimination of the deficit. Running a deficit of this size — more than one per cent of the board's operating allocation — will also require approval from the minister of education, now Todd Smith.

In a statement, the Ministry of Education said it has provided more than $438 million in funding to the board for the 2024-25 year, representing an increase of $10.2 million "despite relatively flat enrollment since 2019."

Since coming into government, we have supported the hiring of 9,000 additional education staff, including 3,000 teachers. We will continue to support students in getting back to basics on reading, writing, and math in Windsor classrooms."

Province had supervision of Catholic board in 2012

If the province does decide to intervene, it wouldn't be the first time in Windsor-Essex. In 2012, the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board was put under provincial supervision.

The supervisor's job was to deliver a balanced budget and "balanced financial position" after the board passed two deficit budgets and proposed a third.

Representatives who were on the Catholic board at the time declined to comment to CBC News.

The Catholic school board is also on track to run a deficit in 2024-25, albeit a smaller one. The board's draft budget shows a projected deficit of nearly $2 million, caused by changes to both the board's revenue and expenses.

Greater Essex County District School Board chair Gale Hatfield in a 2023 file photo. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)
Greater Essex County District School Board chair Gale Hatfield in a 2023 file photo. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

That deficit falls below the one-per-cent threshold that triggers provincial reporting and approvals.

'Funding isn't coming,' union leader says

Erin Roy represents the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation for the Greater Essex district.

She says while she's glad the board came to the decision it did, she does hear the concerns trustees raised about the long-term funding problems.

"I don't believe anybody at the school board wants to make cuts. But the funding isn't coming and year over year, it's becoming less and less. So the services that our students are receiving become less and less," she said.

"If things don't change from the government funding point of view, we're going to be in the same boat very quickly."

She added that Ontario's government of today is "very different" than the government that supervised the Catholic board in 2012.

"Cutting psychologists, social workers, of course, could be on the table with this government. If the government comes in and takes over, will they start cutting it? They might. Would they start cutting some of our special special education programs? They might

"We all know as people who work in the system that that will do nothing but have kids suffer."