Many of the changes proposed under Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s new Better Schools and Student Outcomes Act have already been implemented in Simcoe County schools, according to officials with both the public and Catholic school boards.
Lecce tabled legislation on Monday to increase provincial control over education, reform how local school boards are governed, and give the province control over excess school properties.
The education minister told the media Monday the changes are about making boards more accountable in order to improve student outcomes.
But some of the changes, and the way in which they were presented to the public on Monday, give Simcoe County education representatives pause.
Some of the changes outlined in the act include mandatory training for trustees, a change Simcoe County District School Board chair and Orillia/Severn/Ramara trustee Jodi Lloyd welcomes.
“I think that’s beneficial,” she said. “There are many people who run for the trustee role not fully understanding what it is. It’s something that has been required for some time.”
As part of Monday’s announcement, Lecce announced that base education funding, known as Grants for Student Needs, will increase by $693 million, a 2.7 per cent hike, putting per-student base funding at $13,125.
When it comes to how those proposed changes will actually trickle down to Simcoe County schools, Lloyd says board staff haven’t yet seen the actual amounts, and they won’t know if the promise will mean a true funding increase until they have the technical papers from the province in-hand.
“The devil is always in the details,” said Lloyd. “Our staff will be looking at the technical papers and will release the implications for our board ... through our budget.”
She notes the promised 2.7 per cent increase is “not substantive.”
“Although (Lecce) is indicating they’re making sweeping changes, many of these changes are ones school boards have been looking for, for quite some time,” said Lloyd. “A two per cent increase overall is quite insignificant, when you compare it to the needs of the students. Enrolment is increasing across the province.”
Lloyd says one welcome change she saw as part of the announcement was changes to transportation funding. The Simcoe County District School Board is currently looking at a $2-million deficit in transportation funding this year, while the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board is looking at a deficit to the tune of $350,000.
“We’re really anxious to see the release of that to see how it affects our board. We transport a lot of students everyday in Simcoe County,” she said. “We’ve been requesting that the entire time I’ve been a trustee.”
Lloyd also expressed some frustration with how the announcement was made on Monday. She specifically points to Lecce’s comments about “going back to literacy and numeracy.”
“My disappointment with some of the commentary yesterday was, all educators have been working very hard since the onset of the pandemic. Some of the commentary yesterday didn’t recognize that,” said Lloyd. “We’ve been doing that for years. It’s not that that hasn’t been happening.”
Lloyd says the education sector is struggling with staffing.
“I think anything that undermines education workers is not long-term beneficial. We need to be able to recruit and encourage young people to enter the profession, and attract them to work in our sector,” she said. “Much of what was announced is already taking place in Simcoe County.”
Lloyd points to assessments for reading and math that have been taking place within the board for several years.
“When he makes these announcements, he talks about all school boards. School boards are at different places,” she said. “If there’s a particular board that isn’t meeting expectations, I would prefer if that board be dealt with, rather than these sweeping announcements.”
At the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board, the director of education, Frances Bagley, also welcomed the further promised transportation funding, and said the impacts to the board’s budget would also become clearer once the technical papers are released.
“The additional staffing promises come as welcome news, but we do continue to have concerns about the recruitment of these new educators, in particular to the northern regions of our board,” Bagley said in an emailed statement. “There continues to be province-wide staffing shortages as the number of retirements far-outpace the number of new professionals entering into the education sector.”
The Catholic board chair and Barrie trustee, Maria Hardie, also noted good timing on the announcement in regards to making clearer trustee codes of conduct.
Lecce said on Monday that the bill would allow the government to establish standardized training for trustees and school board officials to ensure "they have the skills and competencies to deliver on provincial priorities."
It would also require codes of conduct for boards of trustees and create a process under the integrity commissioner to resolve code-of-conduct complaints.
“Just last evening at our board meeting, we approved a new code of conduct for trustees, which I believe will be in alignment with some of the areas Minister Lecce highlighted in his news release,” Hardie said in an emailed statement. “I don’t believe that Simcoe Muskoka Catholic’s approach will be significantly different from what will be legislated provincially, but we will have to see once the specific details are released.”
Meanwhile, education unions raised concerns on Monday. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario said it was “caught off-guard” and not consulted on the bill.
“Instead of working in partnership to improve our world-renowned education system, the Ford government is focused on creating a crisis in public education where none exists,” the union said in a statement. “In the government’s own materials, they state that ‘Ontario is among the top-performing education systems nationally and internationally.’ So why is an overhaul necessary? What is their agenda?”
Simcoe County Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation (OSSTF) bargaining unit president Jen Hare says her union is still poring over the documents to find out how the changes will hit local schools, but a few things jump out right off the bat.
“Fundamentally, it seems really good on the surface, but when you scratch just a little bit below the surface, you have to ask some really hard questions,” said Hare.
Hare points to the legislation increasing the number of education workers that will be hired for math supports.
“It’s not a bad thing, until you think of it as a parent. As a parent, do you want someone to come into the classroom maybe once in the school year to help the teacher, or do want a smaller class size for your child?” asked Hare.
“That’s where we start to question whether this is the best use of funds,” she said.
Hare says that from 2018 to now, there are about 70 fewer teachers in the system in the SCDSB, however enrolment has increased dramatically.
“It’s almost like they’re adding supports at the top, but they’re not adding front-line workers,” she said. “We need people on the ground working with kids.”
Hare says she also has concerns when the minister talks about “empty schools.”
As part of Monday’s announcement, a section of the bill proposes to "maximize capital assets" with several new measures. They include allowing the ministry to direct a school board to sell, or otherwise dispose of, school sites or property if it is not needed to meet current or future student needs.
“It would be ludicrous to have an empty school. That’s not the reality in Simcoe County,” said Hare. “Our schools are busting at the seams. We need more investments in capital priorities.”
“More classrooms means we need more people in those classrooms and the funding doesn’t exist for that right now either,” she said.
Representatives for the Simcoe County branch of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) deferred to their provincial statement.
“Yesterday’s announcement by Education Minister Lecce and today’s proposed legislation are yet further examples of the Ford government’s flawed approach to education policy-making and its baffling, almost stubborn refusal to grasp how to support our world-class, publicly funded education system and best realize student success," OECTA president Barb Dobrowolski said in the news release.
Both Simcoe County school boards have said they expect further funding details will be released to the school boards in preparation for their annual budgets in the coming weeks.
— With files from Jessica Smith Cross