Ontario government cuts $25M in funding for specialized school programs

The cut will mean the end of a number of initiatives for at-risk youth, including an after-school program established in the wake of the so-called "summer of the gun" in Toronto.

Programs targeted toward at-risk youth in Toronto on the chopping block

A spokesperson for Education Minister Lisa Thompson, pictured here, said the fund "has a long track record of wasteful spending," though she provided no examples. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

The Ontario government is slashing $25 million in funding for specialized programs in elementary and secondary schools across the province. 

The cut will mean the end of a number of initiatives for at-risk youth, including an after-school program run by teens in low-income areas that was established in the wake of the so-called "summer of the gun" in Toronto. 

According to the city's public school board, the move will also affect programs that encouraged physical activity among  students and offered in-class tutors to children, as well as supports for racialized youth.

MPP Marit Stiles, the NDP education critic, said the cut will be "deeply felt" by students across the province. 

The Toronto District School Board said the cut affects 11 grants administered through a special fund known as the Education Programs — Other (EPO). It is separate from the general operating fund.

Programs that will lose funding addressed issues that were deemed to be priorities by previous provincial governments, as well as the federal government, according to the school board. 

Government says cut follows review of fund

On Friday, the government sent a memo to school boards about its decision.

"Despite only accounting for less than one per cent of school board funding, this fund has a long track record of wasteful spending, overspending and millions of dollars of unfunded commitments," Kayla Iafelice, press secretary for Education Minister Lisa Thompson, said in an email to CBC Toronto.

"We have performed a thorough review of the EPO fund to ensure that it better aligns with the needs and priorities of Ontario parents, teachers and students while respecting taxpayer dollars."

She did not specify how the programs were wasteful or what overspending was detected.

The Toronto District School Board said the cut affects 11 grants administered through a special fund. (CBC)

Iafelice said, for the 2018-2019 fiscal year, EPO transfer payments will total $400 million to third-party organizations and school boards. The amount represents a $25-million reduction over allocations made in the previous fiscal year, she said.

Board called in staff to make sense of the cut

Robin Pilkey, chair of the TDSB, said in an interview on Sunday that the board is trying to make financial sense of the impact of the cut and very little information has been provided. Pilkey is the school trustee for Ward 7, Parkdale-High Park.

"On Friday, after 5 o'clock, an email was received by school boards indicating that there had been changes to the EPOs," she said.
Robin Pilkey, chair of the Toronto District School Board, said she is disappointed at the timing and lack of detail in the government announcement. (Robin Pilkey/Twitter)

"The information was not very clear. At this point, we do not know the financial implications."

Pilkey said she is concerned about the cut and was critical of how it was handled.

"I think it was disappointing that it was dropped so late in the day ... I think it was disappointing because they cut programs and they don't say whether boards will be kept whole on these programs because we were obviously running these programs," she said.

The timing of the memo was also surprising, given that the government had not yet completed its consultation on education, which ended on Saturday, Pilkey added.

The cuts apply for the 2018-19 school year, which is well under way. The board called staff in on Saturday to try to make sense of the memo. 

The email had a number of attachments about individual grants, she said. Some of the programs are continuing, some had their funding reduced and some had their funding cut completely. Others were not mentioned at all and the board doesn't know the status of those, she said.

Programs to be cut include Focus on Youth

The programs funded by EPO grants, considered "focused funding areas," are determined every March by the government and the board has already committed funds to cover staff for programs in this fiscal year, she said.

Not every school board has every program funded by the EPO, however, she added.

The programs to be cancelled immediately include:

  • Focus on Youth after school (summer program will continue).
  • Tutors in the Classrooms.
  • Experiential Learning for Adults.
  • Indigenous Focused Collaborative Inquiry.
  • Daily Physical Activity – Elementary.
  • Physical Activity for Secondary Students.
  • Speak Up.

Focus on Youth, for example, was set up to provide activities for students in schools in areas that are considered under-served by other agencies. Students were hired as group leaders and peer mentors in the program. 

Originally, part of the idea behind the program was to steer students away from gangs. "It certainly is an unusual program to cut," Pilkey said. 

Liberal MPP Mitzie Hunter, a former education minister under Kathleen Wynne, questioned why the Progressive Conservatives would take aim at an initiative that could help at-risk youth.

"It has had a positive impact on the lives of youth. At a time when gun violence is on the rise, why target programs that are working to keep students in school?" she said.