The Ontario government plans to take more control over how the province’s school boards are run by directing the sale of schools, creating a process to handle trustee misconduct complaints and establishing performance metrics for directors of education.
The changes were outlined in legislation tabled by Education Minister Stephen Lecce on Monday, who said the bill is intended to increase accountability and transparency in the school system.
“Parents across Ontario want their kids to graduate from Ontario’s education system with the skills and tools they need to succeed in life, especially in the areas of reading, writing and math,” Mr. Lecce said at Queen’s Park.
“It’s why the legislation is designed to give new tools to the minister to set clear expectations and priorities for student achievement. To ensure that boards across our province are unified in their focus to prepare our students for the jobs of tomorrow.”
The province’s 72 school boards would be required to publicly post their progress on the government’s student achievement priorities. About 15,000 students annually are not graduating high school after five years, and not even half of Grade 6 students are meeting provincial standards in math.
The government also announced $693-million in funding to schools based on enrolment for the coming academic year – an increase of 2.7 per cent. But educators were quick to say the increase does not account for inflation. Several school boards, including the Toronto District School Board, are facing deficits, which could mean cuts to programs and services.
The proposed legislation, titled The Better Schools and Student Outcomes Act, exerts more provincial influence over what is happening at boards, and encroaches on the autonomy of trustees.
Under the act, school boards would declare surplus properties to the Ministry of Education, which has the first right of refusal. The ministry would first identify whether a property could be sold to another board. If not, it would be considered for other needs, including long-term care or affordable housing. It could then be sold on the open market.
Mr. Lecce said the goal is to “accelerate” how the province builds schools, noting it can take several years for new buildings to go up because boards won’t sell to one another.
“It’s about better maximizing our real-estate portfolio. Right now, the school boards are controlling their assets. We don’t even know the inventory of what schools are available.”
Opposition parties decried the government’s plan, calling for more education funding instead.
NDP MPP Chandra Pasma, the party’s education critic, said the legislation amounts to “smoke and mirrors.”
“What we have is a bill in which the minister is trying to shift blame to schools, to teachers and school boards, for the fact that kids are struggling and he’s not providing the investments that they need,” she said, adding that she’s concerned the government will sell off school properties.
“This government has a track record of public land going to developer friends,” Ms. Pasma said.
Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser added that he doesn’t have “any confidence” in the government to manage school board properties.
The bill also proposes setting up an Integrity Commissioner process to resolve code of conduct complaints involving trustees. It would require trustees and senior school board staff to be trained so that they have the means to deliver on academic priorities.
The legislation also states that the government would assist school boards in assessing the performance of its directors of education. The legislation would give the Ministry of Education the ability to provide feedback on a director’s performance.
Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said the government’s legislation “felt very pointed” at trustees, whose role is to advocate for students and their local communities.
Trustees and senior school staff have been focused on improving student outcomes, she said, adding that their goal is not necessarily just to help pupils find a job.
“This is about making sure kids and students can be successful in whatever walk of life they choose that to be. That means more than just reading, writing and arithmetic. That means we also have to keep focusing on equity work, on mental health supports or all of those skills that don’t necessarily get noted in an EQAO test,” she said, referring to the provincial standardized assessment run by the Education Quality and Accountability Office.
Ms. Abraham said her association has asked the government to lift a long-standing school closure moratorium. Mr. Lecce said it remains in place and the government will continue to consult with stakeholders. (The previous Liberal government brought in the moratorium in 2017 after concerns from parents around school closures, especially in smaller communities.)
Mr. Lecce also announced on Sunday that the province plans to hire 1,000 teachers and other educators for elementary schools to target reading and math skills after widespread concerns of learning loss during the pandemic. The government pledged $180-million for programs designed to turn around disappointing results released in November, 2022, that showed elementary students struggling in reading, writing and math. The province says it will hire nearly 2,000 “front-line educators” in total.