With a provincial election looming, the Liberals may be leery of any actions reminiscent of their slash-and-burn Tory predecessors when it comes to their handling of the potential $85 million deficit being faced by the Toronto District School Board.
Several trustees went public last week with concerns that the Tory-era funding formula, based on a per-student calculation, will force massive cuts. All pools will be closed, educational assistants fired, parenting and nutrition programs cancelled and special education phased into general programs.
But Education Minister Sandra Pupatello is eager to establish a precedent of balanced budgets, and hated Toronto could make the perfect whipping boy, says trustee John Campbell, who supports the cuts.
"If Toronto (the province's largest school board) can get it right," reasons Campbell, "they could point to other boards in other jurisdictions."
Public consultations were promised "in the event that we are still facing a shortfall," according to a recent letter from board chair Sheila Ward to parents.
But as the August 31 budget deadline approaches (the board is scheduled to meet August 30 to discuss staff proposals for cuts), no meetings have been announced.
Some trustees are sounding an alarm that Ward wants to make cuts to avert the province's threat to send in a supervisor.
The Ministry of Education can put any board that passes a deficit budget under supervision.
Says St. Paul's trustee Josh Matlow, "She feels that if we don't make a few steps toward the province, it'll send in a supervisor and do whatever it wants. But the province is a parent you can never please."
Ward could not be reached for comment.
Matlow says sending in a supervisor will only punish the board for the province's bad planning - Tory funding formulas that stripped boards of their ability to levy taxes and that allocate funding on a per-student basis, moves the Liberals lambasted when they were in opposition.
"We can lose a few students at one school and a few at another, but lose funding for everything we provide?" asks Matlow. "We aren't getting enough to pay for hydro."
Most at the board agree that a dearth of provincial dollars is driving the deficit. Matlow believes the problem is systemic. He says between seven and 20 other school boards across the province are facing the same dilemma.
But Valerie Poulin of the ministry's issues management department shrugs off the suggestion that the cuts are being driven by lack of provincial funding.
"All we can say at this time is that this year [the TDSB has] received a little over $30 million more than its budget last year, despite a drop in enrolment of 1.5 per cent."
But what if the province brings in a supervisor?
Campbell believes the current crisis is simply forcing the board to make cuts that should have been made long ago. Hall monitors, lunchroom supervisors and educational assistants are only necessary, according to him, "because teachers aren't as active in the schools as they used to be."
He says the board is funding programs, like parenting centres, that are outside its mandate. "It's like a struggling company that needs to restructure," he says. "This board has never really done that."
Eglinton-Lawrence trustee Howard Goodman disagrees. "Parenting centres are absolutely necessary for the success of our students," he tells me, pointing out that Toronto has more children living in poverty than any other board. "They allow parents to support young kids and get them ready for school, yet they aren't being funded. It's insane."
But he's less sanguine about facing off with the province over the budget. "It's [the province's] problem that we don't have enough money," he says, "but our choice isn't whether it gives us money, it's whether we do the balancing or it does the balancing. The choice isn't cuts or no cuts, it's cuts or keys: we make the cuts or we hand over the keys."
Goodman is still unsure how he'll vote but is certain how the province will react.
"Some feel the province can distance itself politically if we make the cuts, but if it makes them it'll have to wear them," he says. "But it is my firm conviction that the ministry will not budge."
The Liberals themselves have operated on a deficit budget for years. They've expressed an unwillingness to make deep education cuts - but they may be happy to have local school boards do it for them.
Says Matlow, "I shouldn't be the one making cuts that hurt my community."
Another reason why schoold boards are finding it difficult to balance the books has to do with the fact that education grants are announced later and later each year. This means boards must often commit to initiatives before they know if they have funding, as has happened with educational assistants.
And there's a further question. Balancing the TDSB's budget seems to rely on moving $40 million budgeted for capital improvements (part of the $1 billion backlog in repairs left from the Tories) to the operational budget. Try getting that kind of math past your teacher.
Matlow feels that by opposing the budget cuts he's also making a case for more autonomy for the board.
Goodman echoes Matlow's concerns about local power. "Through the past years, you can watch every single government cut away at local control of public education and move the control to the province," he says sadly.