OCDSB budget cuts will harm Syrian refugees, union warns

Classroom help for 500 Syrian refugee children attending public schools in Ottawa will be jeopardized if trustees approve a staff-recommended cut to educational assistants, the union representing the workers says.

Ottawa-Carleton District School Board staff propose cutting 12 educational assistants

The union representing teaching assistants with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board says proposed budget cuts will jeopardize the education of recently-arrived refugees like these children, photographed at a playgroup in Ottawa in March, 2016. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Classroom help for 500 Syrian refugee children attending public schools in Ottawa will be jeopardized if trustees approve a staff-recommended cut to educational assistants, the union representing the workers says.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board is considering cutting 12 educational assistant positions this fall as it wrestles with the remaining $5.4-million shortfall in its 2016-17 budget. Trustees received the staff proposals Monday night.  

Educational assistants typically help teachers cope with high-needs children who have behavioural issues or learning disabilities.

Board figures indicate 99 per cent of the Syrian children in Ottawa don't speak English, and many are dealing with trauma they experienced before arriving in Canada

The original staff proposal called for 16 teaching assistant positions to be cut, but the board is adding four assistants to help in new classes for students with autism. 

Union 'horrified' by proposed cuts

Union leaders say these are the vulnerable students who need extra attention from the 600 educational assistants employed by the board.

We're horrified, actually, at the number of cuts that are being suggested.- Nancy Akehurst, OSSTF

"We're horrified, actually, at the number of cuts that are being suggested," said Nancy Akehurst, local president of the education support bargaining unit of the Ottawa Secondary School Teachers' Federation.  

"We understand the board is in a budget crunch, but we would hope they would find some other ways to reduce their deficit without the devastating cuts that are going to happen."

In March trustees approved the bulk of the budget cuts when they voted to eliminate 73 jobs, including 48 teaching positions. In total, 124 full-time positions must be trimmed to balance next year's budget, the board says.

Custodians, support staff could also lose jobs

The latest round of proposed cuts would also eliminate some custodians, instructional coaches who train teachers, and school office support staff. Board staff are also recommending eliminating all adult non-credit classes such as music and sewing.  

The board used the last of its reserves to cover an $11-million deficit in this year's budget. 

"We have been able to minimize some of those reductions for our most vulnerable kids" said Mike Carson, the school board's chief financial officer.

"We believe we've presented a set of recommendations that is equitable and balanced, but it means it affects an awful lot of people and it's always a difficult process."

Proposed cuts 'balanced,' board chair says

Board chair Shirley Seward said a one-per-cent cut in provincial grants this school year will result in cutbacks to classrooms next year.  

"I wish there were no cuts to anyone because everyone plays an extremely important role," said Seward. "The cuts are across all departments, and it looks reasonably balanced."

Seward won't say how she'll vote on the latest staff-recommended cuts until she reads through all the documents and hears from the public. 

She encourages those who have concerns about the proposed cuts to voice their opinion at school board meetings scheduled for May 30 and June 6. 

The board has until June 27 to pass the final budget for the 2016-17 school year.