Public board expected to run $6.4M deficit next year, as trustees oppose job losses

The Greater Essex County District School Board offices in a 2022 file photo. (CBC News - image credit)

Windsor-Essex's public school board will operate with a $6.4 million deficit next year, after trustees refused to cut staff positions during Wednesday's special meeting.

Faced with three options, trustees with the Greater Essex County District School Board (GECDSB) opted not to cut the equivalent of 20 positions in order to run a smaller deficit, citing the impacts cuts to social work, psychology, speech pathology and student support, would have on vulnerable students.

Instead, they said the onus is on the province to do more to fund essential services in public schools.

Passing Wednesday's motion gives staff the direction to move forward and prepare the budget with a deficit for the 2024-25 school year, which will be covered by the board's accumulated surplus.

Five delegations representing the professions of social work, speech pathology and psychology among others, spoke to trustees Wednesday night. In some cases, they noted the lack of, or long wait for services in the community, or high cost that make services inaccessible to families.

Jessica Irwin, a board social worker and union representative, noted the role of social workers in violence and suicide prevention, attendance counselling and LGBTQ support. She said there have already been cuts to social workers in schools and there are just 11 to service the board's 62 schools.

"The idea that mental health services are readily accessible in the community is simply an illusion. Even if there were no waitlists, there are time constraints, transportation barriers, accessibility concerns, especially when you consider our students in the county," Irwin said.

"We love our jobs. We feel grateful to be able to do what we do every day, knowing the huge, significant impact that we make on our students and our families… In summary, we leave you with one final question and that is to ask yourselves, are students' lives really worth balancing the budget?"

Jobs cuts hit 'most vulnerable' kids: trustee

Trustee Kim McKinley made the motion, which was approved unanimously, and met with applause by the gallery.

"Not for a split second do I believe that our current budget deficit is the result of our choices, our board," she said. "Our board has always been a fiscally responsible board for as long as I have been a part of it and for many years even prior to my becoming a trustee for this board.

Trustee Cathy Cooke said running the deficit without cuts to staff was "the only one that [she] will support."

"These are our most vulnerable children and they need our help. And we all have to stick together."

But while trustees expressed support, trustee Ron LeClair warned it might not be a long-term victory.

"I am concerned that choosing option one will appear to be a victory in the short term," LeClair said.

Deficit is about 'lack' of provincial funding, trustee says

Running the full deficit and covering it with the board's surplus was not the option recommended by staff. In their report, they note the option comes with significant oversight from the province, and running a deficit greater than one per cent of the operating allocation requires permission from the minister of education.

Staff also say the move does not address the "structural" nature of the board's financial issue and the surplus could be used by 2026-27 with no changes.

Instead, staff recommended eliminating 20 positions and running a deficit equal to one per cent of the operating allocation, or about $4.5 million. That, they said, would trigger less stringent requirements from the province, but would necessitate a deficit elimination plan.

Staff also said the board could balance the budget with the elimination of 65 staff positions, but didn't recommend the option because of the impact on students.

But trustees say they don't believe the problem is one that stems from the board's finances or budgeting.

"Employees have been hired based on the actual needs of our board and our students …. The budget deficit we are experiencing is far more about the lack of provincial funding that we are receiving than it is about our budgeting," McKinley said.

On Wednesday, the unions representing teachers and staff in the board's schools released a joint statement in opposition to any cuts in staff and services.

When staff warned in December about this year's budget deficit, a Ministry of Education spokesperson said the government "continues to invest the highest amount ever for public education in Ontario history."

It said the GECDSB has received $457 million [in 2023-24]. Since 2018, it says that Ontario classrooms have also been able to add 7,500 educators, which includes 3,500 educational assistants.

In April, the province says it was allocating $745 million more this year across Ontario for reading, writing and math, and had revamped the funding model.

Then-education minister Stephen Lecce said the funding model was "more transparent."

"With historic investments to strengthen literacy and math skills, we are ensuring Ontario classrooms focus on improving the academic achievement of every Ontario student."

In May, staff warned trustees the deficit for the 2023-24 school year was nearly $9 million, citing declining enrolment, as well as inflationary pressures, are among the reasons for the deficit.

With this motion and direction, staff will prepare the budget for the 2024-25 school year, which will be considered by trustees next week.