Catholic board wants time to balance books

Chair appeals to education ministry to hold off cuts of full-day kindergarten and literacy programs
Toronto Star May 07, 2008 Kristin Rushowy

Toronto's Catholic board is appealing to the education ministry for more time to balance its budget to avoid cutting full-day kindergarten and crucial literacy programs for young children.

A government spokesperson yesterday said "it's a conversation we are having," and that the province is looking for a "commitment from them to reduce the deficit."

"As you know, in the past, we've made allowances for boards to submit multi-year plans, but (the Catholic board) would have to have a plan and would have to indicate to us that they were going to stick to the plan, and implement it in a reasonable way," said education ministry spokesperson Michelle Despault.

The Toronto Catholic District School Board is entering the final year of a three-year deficit management plan that began in 2006. Chair Catherine LeBlanc-Miller said some "breathing room" would make all the difference.

"We will, until the very last moment, look for other ways of reducing costs, and continue to pursue conversations with the ministry to extend the deficit plan," she said in an interview yesterday. "Even if we had one year," such cuts could be avoided. At a public budget meeting Monday night, LeBlanc-Miller said "parents articulated exactly what I think we (trustees) are struggling with. These are valuable programs and not the kind of cuts we want to make."

Right now, the province does not provide any money for full-day kindergarten, although it plans to introduce it across Ontario in 2010. Children attend junior and senior kindergarten half-days, although boards also offer a full-day, every other day program. The Toronto Catholic board, along with some Northern Ontario and French language boards, offer the full-day, every day, option.

"I do believe that when you look at it, it appears the board is balancing the budget on the backs of elementary teachers and students," said Anthony Bellissimo, president of Toronto Elementary Catholic Teachers. Layoff notices will go out to 130 of his members starting next week, something Bellissimo said hasn't happened since the 1990s.

That, along with the end of full-day kindergarten and cuts to 5th Block literacy program and Junior Literacy Intervention for primary and junior students, make up the bulk of the $14 million in savings trustees are considering.

Bellissimo is hoping they'll listen to his suggestions at a meeting tonight to delay implementing year-round schools or to "twin" vice-principals among two schools as potential cost-saving measures.

He also said the board continues to overspend on administration.

"Is there a possibility that, given these drastic programming cuts, parents might choose to remove their children from our system and worsen an already difficult situation?" Bellissimo will tell trustees tonight.

Trustee and budget chief Oliver Carroll said any suggestions are welcome. "We're going to look at everything."