TDSB arts cuts making it 'difficult for us to grow,' students, parents say

Parents and students say the quality of arts programming at the Toronto District School Board has taken a steep decline since the board introduced sweeping budget cuts before this school year.

Provincial budget cuts responsible for reduction in programming, board says

Astrid Krallisch, wearing a brown vest, during a performance at Mainstage Theatre Company. The Grade 10 student also plays piano and studies jazz. (Erik Krallisch/Submitted)

Parents and students say the quality of arts programming at the Toronto District School Board has taken a steep decline since the board introduced sweeping budget cuts before this school year.

"It's just become really difficult for me to get better," said Astrid Krallisch, a Grade 10 student at the Etobicoke School for the Arts.

Krallisch, 15, studies musical theatre and plays piano in the school's jazz band. She said her artistic growth and development has atrophied due to a lack of specialized teachers and visiting artists so far this year.

"We don't have the same teachers and the same help that we used to have," she told CBC Toronto. "If we don't have that help now it's going to be really difficult for us to grow."

According to Krallisch and her parents, her school has lost its specialized jazz instructor, forcing a music teacher with less experience in the genre to take over that role. 

Other programs have been combined, her father Erik Krallisch said. He added that teachers have also been forced to take on more classes at an unsustainable rate.

Some of Krallisch's classmates are being forced to sit out lessons, she added, since broken instruments are no longer being repaired or replaced.

What's changed

In June 2019, the TDSB announced it would wipe $67.8 million from its budget over two years due to education funding cuts by the Ford government.

The changes affect a variety of areas, but the board has been under increasing scrutiny for the changes to its arts programming, which TDSB director John Malloy addressed in a video posted to YouTube in December.

"Difficult policy decisions have been made," said Malloy. "Government budget reductions are challenging and the board had to make hard decisions about how to use finite resources."

Among the changes, the TDSB no longer provides additional funding to its four specialized arts schools, which previously received upwards of $100,000 annually, according to the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF).

Funding for itinerant music instructors, who provide arts programming for a variety of TDSB schools, was also cut by 24 per cent.

"This reckless course of action that they're taking is going to hurt students. It's going to hurt them academically, it's going to hurt them psychologically," said Jules Estrin, who has been an itinerant music instructor for 20 years at the TDSB, and previously taught Krallisch.

In addition to teaching at the TDSB, Estrin has three children attending schools within the board. He's been calling on fellow parents to email and call board members to reverse the arts cuts.

Estrin said the board's decision to eliminate additional funding for its specialized arts schools is particularly damaging, and a sign the board is no longer interested in properly supporting the arts.

"Some of it comes from the [provincial] government, for sure, but unfortunately most of it comes directly from the TDSB," Estrin said.

The OSSTF has acknowledged a reduction in programming, but none of its members have lost their jobs as a result of arts-related budget changes.

Both the union and school board say the cuts were necessary as a result of decreased provincial funding.

The alternative, said OSSTF Toronto president Leslie Wolfe, would have been for the TDSB to pass a deficit budget, which the Ford government could have eventually overridden.

Jules Estrin, an itinerant music instructor for 20 years, called the cuts a 'reckless course of action.' (Submitted)

Arts 'flourishing and thriving,' TDSB says

In his video message— titled "The Arts at the TDSB: Flourishing and Thriving" — Malloy said the arts remain a vital part of the TDSB's education programming.

"I do understand why these school communities are concerned," he said, before attempting to assure parents about the future of the programs.

"Our specialized schools and programming are not going anywhere," he said, adding that the board may introduce changes regarding applications, auditions and admissions to its specialized arts schools to improve equity.

However, others fear that the state of arts programming may become more dire in the years to come.

Erik Krallisch worries that teachers who are temporarily filling new roles and teaching new classes may not be able to keep up with those added demands.

"Whether that's sustainable or not is unclear," he said.