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School boards surprised by city's proposed cuts

Miguel Avila, left, with the Latin American Tenant Association, listens to those before him Wednesday during the first of two days of public deputations to the City of Toronto's budget committee at City Hall.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Toronto's two largest school boards say they had no warning about wide-ranging cuts proposed by the city that will take millions from their bottom line and affect several shared programs, despite talks with the mayor's office and efforts to co-ordinate service and make tax dollars go further.

The city's proposed budget includes plans to reduce city funding for meal programs and school pools and halt the use of some school facilities for city parks and recreation programs. There are also plans to end city rent subsidies for school daycare centres – a move that jeopardizes millions in revenue for the city's public and separate school boards.

School board officials say they were caught off guard by the city's plan, which became public just days after both school board chairs met with a member of the mayor's office to discuss planning of school construction projects.

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Chris Bolton, chair of the Toronto District School Board, said proposals in the city budget to take 10 per cent off of most department budgets could undo agreements to share programs and facilities. The lack of consultation, he said, means that some investments, such as a $190,000 renovation at the Bedford Park School pool could be wasted now that it is one of seven on the city's cutting list.

He said the budget proposals put the board and its students in the middle of a tug of war for funds, with both the city and the province tightening their purse strings. The solution, he said, is more collaboration, not isolated actions aimed at short-term budget savings.

"We are really feeling in a bind," Mr. Bolton told The Globe and Mail. "We all know we are going to have to think creatively and in new ways, but we also need to make a commitment to sit down and work together to be able to do what is best."

As all levels of government try to do more with less, he said co-ordinating actions are more important than ever. "It should look seamless to the learners and the families and the communities," he said.

While the meetings held with the mayor's office days before the budget were not related to the budget, Mr. Bolton said they were part of a wider initiative to work together. "We found it kind of perplexing that there was no mention at that time of anything else," he said.

That meeting was not the time to discuss budget matters, said Sunny Petrujkic, the member of the staff at the meeting to discuss planning issues.

The city's budget chair Mike Del Grande says school boards should have seen the cuts coming. "You know what, this is nothing new," said Mr. Del Grande, a former separate school board trustee whose son now sits on that board. "For a long time everybody knew everybody was treading on thin ice."

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Mr. Bolton estimates Toronto's budget cuts could add up to more than $4-million in lost revenue and funding for his board. That includes about $1-million in pool funding; roughly $2-million in lost rent subsidies for daycare centres, which may or may not be made up with higher parent fees; $2-million in lost rental revenue from recreation programs; and $250,000 for food programs.

His estimate does not include the cost if the board tried to deliver the recreation programming that is now at risk.

Sandra Best, a director with the Toronto Foundation for Student Success, which delivers food programs to 147,000 Toronto school children, said the 10-per-cent cut in city funding – $382,000 – will mean the cancellation of programs at 52 schools and affect 14,000 students across all Toronto boards.

"Small amounts go a long way, that is why any cut is catastrophic," she told members of the budget committee Wednesday, one of 348 speakers signed up to talk for three-minutes over two days of meetings.

At the Toronto District Catholic School Board, chair Ann Andrachuk estimates the cancellation of the daycare subsidy will take more than $700,000 from the system. Cuts to nutrition programs mean the board will lose 23 meal programs for 6,800 students – nearly a quarter of those who use the service. "We will be hard-pressed to replace that funding," she said.

With holidays approaching and a budget deadline of mid-January, Mr. Bolton said there is little time for discussions. "We really need to get together to talk through some of this," he said.

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