August 12, 2019
In the August 8, 2019 edition of the Recorder and Times and in your letter addressed to me of August 7, 2019, I note your concern about the impact of the Board’s recent budget cuts. It is good that you are finally concerned. Yet it is immediately clear to us that your recommendation for addressing the financial challenges that the Upper Canada District School Board faces as it delivers on its core mandate to support our student learning and their well-being, is an unfortunate approach, since it does little to assist us at a time of unprecedented financial difficulty.
It is important for us to remember that I specifically raised these difficulties at a meeting at your office on February 15, 2019 in an effort to solicit your assistance seeking mitigation from the oppressive impact of a disastrous arbitration judgment for our Board, rendered in August 2018. I met again with you on May 31 and, on numerous occasions with your Executive Assistant, highlighting these matters.
Let me restate what is clear to those of us who care to know the facts: the Board has found itself facing serious budget pressures for 2019/ 2020, similar to most Boards in the province, due mainly to the provincial government reducing grants in a number of functional areas. We appreciate that the government is dealing at their own level with a very large deficit, which it is trying to address effectively. This reduction in grants for the Upper Canada District School Board resulted in an initial budget shortfall of $11.7M. The Ministry of Education indicated quite clearly that school boards were to balance their budgets despite any reduction in the annual legislative grants.
As you know from the detailed information that I shared with you and your office on June 28th, the Board took additional steps during its own Spring 2019 budget deliberations to use prudently the entire amount of the $364M in funding it has received from the Ministry of Education with the best interest of our students and the operating of our local schools in mind.
Further to my detailed correspondence to your office on June 28th, you will have noted how it was essential for us to proceed with reductions in staff in order to align our expenses with the adjusted level of resources being allocated by the government to our Board. 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.
Members of the local community already know these details relating to our challenging budget deliberations at the Board table, as attentively reported through the media. These reports highlighted the unprecedented steps that the Board of Trustees was obliged to follow to achieve a balanced budget for 2019/2020.
It is puzzling why your letter on August 7th fails to acknowledge what the media and what our community already understands about our Board’s fiscal and operational realities, given the lengthy and very transparent budget deliberation process this Spring. If there were uncertainties or a lack of clarity on your part, then it is even more puzzling why you did not pursue my offer to meet (also part of my correspondence to your office on June 28th). Instead, my offer for us to meet was left unanswered and more than a month after my communication to you, have you chosen to advise that you are concerned.
Beyond this, both the Board and I have used a multi-channel approach to keep you and other local area MPPs, as well as officials at the Ministry of Education and the Minister of Education’s office dually informed about the progress and challenges of the Upper Canada District School Board. This includes extensive information about cost-pressures in student transportation which, again, the public knows all too well from the extensive dialogue at the Board table and as reported in the local media. I would conclude that we were certainly in touch with our provincial representatives, yet your letter suggests a distance between your office and our realities. How can this be so?
Now, you suggest that the UCDSB take advantage of the new “Audit and Accountability Fund” through which school boards can request a third party to conduct “a line by line review of operations and service delivery”. We find this recommendation to be strange, as the Board’s books are open, and we already have in place an extensive audit by external auditors annually. As you can imagine, we will be highlighting our recent fiscal challenges and the actions around the 2019/2020 budget when we engage our external auditors in the future. As well, let’s not overlook the fact that the Upper Canada District School Board – just like all school boards – are required to have their own Audit Committees. Since these committees are regarded as “an expert committee in that their members need to have sufficient knowledge of accounting principles and related management processes in order to evaluate the information associated with activities under their purview” we have the utmost confidence that the Board already receives sound advice about financial management throughout the year.
To be candid, the UCDSB needs more than your concern; rather, we need your support. As a local Member of Provincial Parliament and Minister of the Crown, we need you to seek relentlessly financial relief and accommodation for matters which were caused by the previous Government of the day, which resulted in higher costs in many of our programs and services areas. We take comfort that we are already seeing some relief in some budget lines (such as student transportation for the next budget year – a development that we welcome here in Eastern Ontario).
As well, just like the provincial government itself, all school boards are trying to establish the right balance between high quality service delivery and affordability. The Board’s recent review of our Special Education program earlier this year achieved this outcome, resulting in the passing of several Board motions which will lead to program improvements for students with special education needs. Our decision to continue to provide additional resources beyond the current allocation of funding in this program area is certainly further confirmation of the Upper Canada District School Board putting the needs of students first.
Such is our case: we know exactly where our financial pressure points are in special education and student transportation. Consequently, the suggestion of applying taxpayer money for a further audit presents to us as an unnecessary duplication and an expensive exercise. In the case of the former, we have adopted for the next school year a delivery model which will vastly improve our financial picture; as for the latter, there has been financial relief from the province for the next budget year to deal with future costs which will significantly reduce cost pressures.
Our position has always been to maintain a cooperative and positive partnership with you, the Minister of Education, and the current Government. We feel this approach best serves our students, their schools, and our local community. The Upper Canada District School Board is hopeful that we can return to a more productive dialogue with you, as one of the four provincial representatives that have electoral ridings aligned with the vast geography of our school board. I remain available to meet at any mutually convenient date in the hope of furthering your understanding about the school board’s budget for 2019 / 2020 and the actions that the Board of Trustees was obliged to take this past June.
As well, you can count on our reaching out to you for our annual Autumn meeting. As you know, this is a practice that we implemented as a board a few years ago so to ensure that our provincial representatives had the key information they need to advance our shared interests about publicly funded education at Queen’s Park.
John McAllister, Chair Upper Canada District School Board.