Ontario’s northern boards have smaller high school classes — and under changes by the Ford government, they have more to lose.
While boards across the province worry about how to handle the loss of teachers and course offerings as high school class sizes jump from an average of 22 to 28, in the north the current average is closer to 18.
With smaller class numbers and a huge geographic area to serve, getting secondary-school class averages up will be tough without threatening core courses, critics say.
“They are going to have a really difficult time finding ways to meet that average without it impacting kids,” said Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association.
“They are already challenged because of the demographics — they just don’t have as many students as we have in the south. The government is now making class averages 28 to 1, so they are wrestling with what to do with smaller secondary schools. How are they going to deliver those programs with fewer teachers?”
The particular issues facing these boards led to the Near North District School Board — in Finance Minister Vic Fedeli’s riding — to have to issue potential layoff notices to half of all public high school teachers.
Fedeli accused the union of fearmongering by releasing the information, but the union said the notices — and numbers — were a board decision and that over the next four years the loss of teaching positions will hurt local schools.
On Friday, a fuming Fedeli spoke to reporters after educators protested his speech in his hometown of North Bay.
“They’re still protesting and now they’ve taken it to a whole new level by exaggerating (that) we’re cutting 50 per cent of the teachers. That is just simply preposterous,” Fedeli said. “Nobody should believe a word that the teachers’ union ever tell them again.”
Education Minister Lisa Thompson has guaranteed all teacher job losses will come through attrition, not layoff, and has set up a four-year, $1.6 billion fund to ensure that.
But at the end of that time, there will be fewer teachers – the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation has estimated about 25 per cent less.
In an interview with the Star, Thompson said she encourages boards to “come back to me with ideas and concerns and offsetting suggestions until May 31.”
“No matter what’s being said out there … the thread that ties labour partners together with education partners together with our government is the priority of making sure we get it right in the classroom to ensure student achievement,” she said. “We want to work with school boards.”
Northern boards will continue to receive top-up funding to help with low enrolment, she added. “I know first-hand that a cookie-cutter approach to everything absolutely failed the last government, and we are not going to fall into that trap.”
But with sprawling boards that cover huge geographic areas, and not as many teachers, northern boards will have to look at different options: create more multi-grade and multi-level classes? Cutting core courses? More videoconferencing?
Videoconferencing is already used, and “is not an answer for everyone,” said Abraham, especially in light of ongoing Internet difficulties in more far-flung areas.
“We take for granted things like instruments, music class,” which some boards have already had to abandon, she said. “What’s left for them without cutting core courses? This is a tough one for them. A lot of my colleagues up in the north are really concerned about this. How the heck are they going to provide quality programming and support?”
Bob Brush, chair of the District School Board Ontario North East — which covers a wide swath including Timiskaming, Timmins and Kapuskasing — said “we have nine high schools, and a very large board, geographically … it’s a seven- or eight-hour drive from one end to the other.”
In a place like Hearst, the high school can have about 40 students and “we staff at 18 to 1 … now we are going to have to phase in to 28.
“Guess what — that’s significant, that’s going to be very serious.”
Brush, a former high school principal, said “we’re not sure how it’s going to work.”
It is also not clear to him how attrition will impact the the northern boards. “If the automotive teacher retires, who is teaching auto? Who is qualified to do it?”
“Attrition for me, in my experience, doesn’t work well in a high school setting,” he added. “We have specialists” who are not easy to replace, especially in more remote areas.
“If the physics teacher retires – who is going to teach physics? You can’t just put Joe Smith in.”
Chris Bell and his wife Leah were both notified of potential layoff by the Near North Board. They both work at Almaguin Highlands Secondary School in South River, north of Huntsville.
They both expected about 30 teachers across their board to receive potential layoff notices, he said — but not 121 of 240.
“If it wasn’t such a devastating piece of information, we thought it was laughable,” Bell said.
“My wife and I are both affected by this,” he added. “And we have three small children,” ages 5 and under.
He’s been with the board for 10 years, four of them in a permanent position at Almaguin, teaching history. Leah Bell has been on staff for nine years, teaching phys ed and special education. She grew up in the area and attended the school as a teen, as did her parents (and her father later became a vice-principal there, serving 15 years).
“We had thought she was high enough on the seniority list that she probably wouldn’t be touched at all,” Bell said.
Twenty-four of Almaquin’s 32 teachers received such notices. But even if, in the end, no layoffs occur, positions are going to be phased out.
“This basically handcuffs our school’s administration on the types of electives they are going to have to offer come September” which puts all rural schools at a disadvantage, Bell added.
Students will also miss out on extracurriculars as teachers leave. Other teachers may find themselves moved to other schools, with much longer commutes.
“We’re just waiting, basically,” Bell said. “We’re optimistic – we have to be. We’re just hoping that at least one of us has somewhere to go in September. That’s number one for us.”
The province is also boosting elementary classes by an average of one student in Grades 4 to 8.
In total, the province estimates a loss of 3,500 teachers, though advocacy groups and unions believe it to be closer to 10,000.
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy