EDUCATION

A test of wills

Ontario school boards announce huge layoffs

VICTOR DWYER March 25 1996
EDUCATION

A test of wills

Ontario school boards announce huge layoffs

VICTOR DWYER March 25 1996

A test of wills

EDUCATION

Ontario school boards announce huge layoffs

During her nine years as a teacher of French and history at Lord Elgin High School in Burlington, Ont., Kathleen Carroll has always enjoyed

being noticed at work—at least until earlier this month. That was when Carroll, along with half the school’s staff of 34 teachers, was given formal notification that she will not have a job next September. “The joke going around right now,” says Carroll, “is that the luckiest teachers are those that the principal hasn’t ‘noticed.’ ” Carroll is one of 2,100 teachers given pink slips at four Ontario school boards in recent weeks. On one level, those massive cuts are part of a tense bluffing game between school boards, teachers’ unions and Education Minister John Snobelen, who earlier this month outlined the ways in which boards must eliminate $400 million—nine per cent of provincial funding—from the school system by Dec. 31. But while many of those given notice will likely be spared when the dust clears, there appears to be little doubt that the minister’s cuts, and his vision of how they should be accomplished, will have profound effects on school classrooms. Said John Bachmann, president of the Organization for Quality Education, a lobby group that fights for greater parental involvement in schools: “The minister, the boards, the teachers—everyone seems to be looking after themselves. Of course, it’s the kids who will get caught in the crossfire.”

While school boards across the country are facing cuts, the pressure is greatest in Ontario, where the Conservative government of Premier Mike Harris is determined to eliminate the province’s $ 10-billion deficit. Snobelen has already said that the current claw-backs will be followed by another $600 million in reductions next year. And boards say they have little choice but to plan for the worst. The reason: Snobelen has now decided not to provide them with a so-called tool kit of legislation, which he first spoke of publicly in January. It would have given boards greater flexibility to cut costs by scaling back teachers’ daily preparation time, during which they grade tests and prepare lessons; and by replacing some kindergarten teachers with lower-paid, college-educated specialists in early childhood education. As well, it would have streamlined early retirement procedures and prevented retiring teachers from cashing in unused sick days.

Instead, Snobelen presented boards with what he called a “savings strategy” that refrained from major government intervention, forcing them to meet his new budget targets on their own. The minister says he

did so in order “to get out of the way of the

people running the school system at the local level.” But Linda Glover, chairwoman of the Halton Board of Education, which includes Lord Elgin school, sees it differently. Says Glover: “It appears the government wants us to take the heat for its cutbacks.” Snobelen certainly has good reason to avoid a face-to-face confrontation with the

province’s 130,000 teachers. The Ontario Public Service Employees Union ended its 20th day of a strike against the Harris government on March 16. A new offer to the

55.000 strikers, focusing on improved job security, was rejected by OPSEU officials last week. The teachers’ unions, meanwhile, have staged the largest demonstrations yet against the Tories, including one in January in which

37.000 people marched on the legislature. Said Carroll, who is also a district president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation: “The minister would have been a fool to wage war on two broad fronts, and risk being weakened on both.”

Still, it appears likely that educational confrontations will be inevitable in the coming months—including full-scale strikes at some boards. Although he did not eliminate junior kindergarten programs, which employ 6,000 teachers, Snobelen promised to introduce

legislation this spring that will allow boards to discontinue it. Several have announced their intention to do so. Said Donna Cansfield, president of the Ontario Public School Boards Association: “Teachers may think they have great job security, but it’s pretty obvious: no program, no kids, no teachers.”

And while Snobelen backed off from introducing legislation to reduce preparation time, he made it almost impossible for boards not, at minimum, to put it on the table. Saying that he expects at least $65 million to be saved from “expenditures outside the classroom,” he included preparation time as a “non-classroom” activity.

As well, some boards have said that they may have to eliminate programs outside of the academic core. Glover says that kindergarten, instrumental music, and design and technology are possible targets. That prospect

could draw parents into the fray. “Do we see the ministry, or the boards, facing such cuts?” asks Bachmann. “It all seems designed to get the pain as close to the classroom as possible.”

In the meantime, Carroll says that the recent layoff notices “are just Round 1 in what will no doubt be a long and difficult fight.” And while Snobelen continues to insist that his goal is to let local boards run local affairs, those charged with doing so are already discussing the spectre of dragging the province back into negotiations. Says Cansfield, “If the minister continues to take away, and the teachers aren’t prepared to move, our boards will have to go back to the province for help.” Whether Snobelen will open his tool kit then—and what it may contain—remains for now an educated guess.

VICTOR DWYER