Premier Doug Ford is calling the Toronto District School Board’s warning of a $67.8 million budget shortfall a “scare tactic” and a political stunt as a war of words escalates over provincial education cuts.
“The numbers that the TDSB put out are absolutely reckless,” the premier said Tuesday, a day after the board revealed its cash crunch is $13 million worse than expected and could result in cuts to guidance counsellors, learning and reading coaches, custodians and busing of French immersion students, among other services.
“Political stunts like this only serve to cause anxiety with parents and with students,” Ford added, describing school boards as “out of control.”
Board director John Malloy detailed the numbers at a special meeting, saying staff learned late Friday from the Ministry of Education that provincial cuts to the TDSB will total $42.1 million when officials had expected a $28.7 million cut.
Coupled with a structural deficit of $25.7 million for money the board spends that is not backstopped by the province, the total shortfall adds up to $67.8 million in a system with 246,000 students in 582 schools.
“We, frankly, have lost some of the flexibility that we’ve had over time to offer services in the way we have,” Malloy said. “That’s why some of the difficult decisions will need to be made over the next month.”
More details will come Friday, when the board is slated to release details of courses it will not offer next fall.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she’ll believe the school board over Ford’s Progressive Conservative government — which is battling a forecast deficit of $12.3 billion this year — when it comes to the numbers.
“It’s only the premier that believes in his own numbers, and his caucus. Everybody else is being upfront with Ontarians and showing the damage this government is going to do,” Horwath told reporters.
The cuts mean students “won’t get the best education possible,” she maintained.
Education Minister Lisa Thompson said the TDSB, Canada’s largest school board, is getting $2.97 billion from the province and should be prepared to pare one per cent of its budget with administrative “efficiencies.”
“We ask them, respectfully, to stop playing politics,” she added after Ford cited examples of wasteful TDSB spending in the legislature’s daily question period, such as $143 to install a pencil sharpener and $147 to cut a key, as reported in a 2012 investigation by the Star.
By 2014, the board had fired or disciplined 150 construction and maintenance workers over allegations of fraud and “time theft” in a crackdown on wasteful activities. It took measures including the installation of GPS tracking devices on school board vehicles, and bundling jobs in schools to reduce wasted travel time from one small job to another.
Thompson said the government is pushing to improve education systems province-wide.
“We want to take a look at how all school boards are operating and how we can embrace modernization so across the province we have consistent efficiencies being realized.”
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1