School board chair, MPP face off over education funding

The chair of the Upper Canada District School Board and MPP Steve Clark are trading barbs in public over the board's recent cuts to front-line workers supporting students in the classroom.

160 staff positions cut at UCDSB to deal with funding shortfall

UCDSB chair John McAllister said he hopes MPP Steve Clark will work with him and Ontario's education minister to come up with a solution. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

John McAllister, chair of the Upper Canada District School Board, and MPP Steve Clark are trading barbs in public over the board's recent cuts to front-line workers supporting students in the classroom.

Clark, the MPP for Leeds–Grenville–Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, wrote an open letter to McAllister Aug. 7, expressing concern about the impact recent board staffing cuts would have on students in the upcoming school year.

The UCDSB has said it's facing a funding shortfall of $11.7 million, in part because it overspent on special education and office administration to the tune of roughly $9.8 million in 2018, and in part because of the reduction of provincial annual legislative grants.

The board had been in financial peril since 2018, when arbitration with a group of bus companies suddenly increased its annual transportation costs by about $10 million. But the province stepped in to help the UCDSB cover those costs for 2019.

To deal with the remaining shortfall, the board recently slashed 160 staff positions.

Among the cuts, it approved a $1.3 million decrease in funding for para-professional employees — who include behaviourists and child and youth workers — and laid off 25 para-professional employees in June, according to a news release issued Monday by their union, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF).

The OSSTF said the layoffs affected 53 per cent of the UCDSB's para-professionals.

Prioritize needs of students, front-line staff, MPP writes

Responding to the move, Clark wrote: "Like all parents ... I expect the needs of students in our local schools and the front-line staff who are so dedicated to supporting them to be the priority of your board when it comes to setting a budget."

The MPP asked that the board conduct a third-party, line-by-line review of its operations as soon as possible, using money from the province's Audit and Accountability Fund to pay for it.

Leeds–Grenville–Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes MPP Steve Clark. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

"The goal of these reviews is to find administrative savings and identify operational efficiencies to ensure every dollar possible is going to support students in the classroom," Clark wrote.

He added that the $342 million in funding the UCDSB received from the province for the year is "the largest amount the board has ever received" from the government.

'Does little to assist us,' board chair writes

McAllister fired back with his own open letter on Monday, published on the UCDSB's website.

He wrote that it's "good that you are finally concerned," but called Clark's approach "unfortunate," because "it does little to assist us at a time of unprecedented financial difficulty."

The school board chair wrote that he raised concerns about impending cuts in meetings and correspondence with Clark and his staff earlier this year, before the board's budget was confirmed in June.

"The impacts of declining enrolment, increasing costs, and reduction in some grants, when all factored in, meant that the board was required to reduce expenditures for next year to match revenues," McAllister wrote.

He also called Clark's audit recommendation "strange," considering that the UCDSB, along with all other school boards, has an audit committee and gets "extensive audits be external auditors annually."

Funding appreciated, but not enough, McAllister says

In an interview with CBC Radio's All In A Day on Tuesday, McAllister said he doesn't understand what prompted Clark to air his criticisms in an open letter last week.

"It is puzzling and somewhat surprising, frankly," McAllister said.

MPP Steve Clark wrote an open letter to an Eastern Ontario school board last week, detailing concerns about its budget cuts for the upcoming school year. And offering up an independent auditor to help find more savings. 8:22

"The issue is not any mismanagement of funds as implied and frankly, this diminishes the work of my trustees and our staff."

McAllister acknowledged that existing provincial funding was appreciated, but was ultimately not enough, and he called on Clark to work with the board and Ontario's education minister to find a solution.

"What we need is assurances, intervention, support from our MPPs and our minister to help us help the students and parents in Upper Canada."

Clark's office said he was not available for an interview to respond to McAllister's comments.

With files from CBC Radio's All In A Day


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