A confidential memo sent to school boards from the education ministry asks them to think of ways to “support reducing red tape and administrative burden” as the province looks to set funding levels for the next school year.
The Jan. 13 missive, obtained by the Star, says the ministry is “currently undertaking budget planning for the upcoming school year and an integral part of this process is soliciting feedback from our valued education partners to improve and refine the education funding formula.”
It says “the ministry is welcoming feedback on all areas pertaining to education funding, with a particular interest in receiving comments on initiatives that could support reducing red tape and administrative burden for the education sector.”
A source in the ministry said “we are always open to input on how to optimize the funding formula. The red tape element focuses on how ministry requirements can be streamlined to make administrative operations more efficient and seamless for school boards.”
While the memo is routinely sent out to boards before the government decides on the annual “grants for student needs,” or GSNs, the focus on “red tape” has raised eyebrows.
“I think this government should be more concerned right now about what the impact is of their cuts to education in classrooms and how boards are trying to make do with so much less,” said NDP education critic Marit Stiles.
While the government has increased education funding overall, that figure includes the impact of growing enrolment as well as the province’s new child care rebate. Per pupil funding is down, and some grant money has also been called back.
“Even just in the Toronto District School Board, it was a $67 million cut” this school year, added Stiles, a former trustee. “It’s already been a devastating blow and so I think that this government should be looking at how we invest, rather than cut further.”
Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said the funding memo asking for suggestions “is standard” though it would typically be issued prior to the Christmas holidays.
“What we have been saying for a number of years … we are always talking about refining the funding formula,” Abraham said. “Even as much as they’ve done over the years — piecemeal fixing of this or that — nobody has done a complete review of the funding formula and how it works, and if it works for everybody.”
She said the question about “red tape” is unusual, but that school boards’ staff are “really good about finding efficiencies … there isn’t a board in the province that hasn’t looked at how we can get more efficient in our administrative line.”
Some boards move administrative spending to cover special education funding shortfalls, she added, “so there’s not a lot of wiggle room there. Our boards are really good at being efficient for things that are not in the classroom.”
Liberal MPP and former education minister Mitzie Hunter said while working with boards to identify administrative streamlining or savings is worthwhile, “that should not be the sole focus.”
“Premier Doug Ford and his minister don’t understand that investing in education is an economic plan,” Hunter said.
“Classroom spending is really what we want to focus on — how to make improvements to the classroom.”
Hunter, who is seeking the Liberal leadership, said her platform includes a full funding formula review, in particular to make sure there is enough funding for special needs students and those in rural and Northern boards.
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Annie Kidder, of research and advocacy group People for Education, said “I worry a little that in its request for input, the ministry points particularly to administrative costs.”
She said “there is a tendency to think that spending money on administration is somehow wasteful, but if we want an education system that works for all of the two million students in it, we need co-ordination at the school board level, we need people working in offices, and school superintendents, and we need the people who co-ordinate things like special education.”