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Toronto school board passes balanced budget

Grade 7 students participate in class at East Alternative School of Toronto (E.A.S.T.) in Toronto, Ont. Nov. 30, 2011.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Toronto District School Board trustees struggled to cut $58-million at a special budget meeting Wednesday evening, but passed a balanced budget with minor tweaks to staff recommendations.

The board agreed to shut down 32 school cafeterias to generate $600,000 in savings and accept a reduction of $9.9 million in what was supposed to be a $30-million maintenance plan for TDSB's old buildings in need of repairs. The board also agreed to a Ministry of Education operational review that will find efficiencies resulting in $9-million in savings.

"There was a lot of emotion, a lot of complex discussions and issues that people wanted to discuss," said chair Chris Bolton after the nearly five hour meeting. "Where we ended up was a balanced budget."

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Staff had been working on the list of recommended cuts and ward consultations for more than five months. The board had to pass a balanced budget or would have been in defiance of the Education Act.

The board also passed an amendment that reallocated $1-million from year-in savings to special education, funds for social workers and psychologists and school budgets. That money might still not come through until November.

"A budget is a living document," Mr. Bolton said of the $1-million fund, adding that would need to be addressed at a later date.

Surprisingly, the board still agreed to raise permit fees by 40.7 per cent for community rentals of school properties - an issue of major contention prior to Wednesday's special meeting. The fee hikes will generate $2.2-million in savings.

Earlier this year, the board cut $50.6-million in labour costs – high-school teaching positions, vice-principals and other school staff – in an attempt to balance the budget. Added costs from the growing full-day kindergarten program combined with declining revenues from school cafeterias meant trustees had to find a way to replace the shortfall of $58.2-million.

Much of the anger and frustration from parents and trustees was directed at the Ontario government, which they say has reduced overall funding by $12-million.

Kate Wallis, a parent, said the board is caught between "a rock and a hard place."

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"They are being forced to make cuts because of the province's decision to reduce funding," she said.

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