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Published in Print: September 11, 2002, as Province Takes Over Toronto Schools

Province Takes Over Toronto Schools

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A bitter and political school funding showdown in Canada left control of that nation's largest school system—Toronto—and two others in the hands of the Ontario provincial government when classes started last week.

Local school district trustees in Toronto, along with those in the Ottawa- Carleton and Hamilton-Wentworth systems, defied the Progressive Conservative government by refusing to submit balanced budgets in July to protest what they say is an inadequate school finance system. Faced with total budget deficits of more than $130 million in Canadian dollars, the trustees of the three districts refused to cut student programs, lay off teachers, or close schools to reduce spending. (One Canadian dollar is worth about 64 cents in U.S. currency.)

Ontario Education Minister Elizabeth Witmer responded by stripping the local trustees of their power over financial and administrative matters last month and appointing supervisors to oversee each district. Auditors whose review of the districts' finances led to the takeovers charged that in some instances, money had been diverted from the classroom to social-service programs the provincial government had not authorized.

"Some say it was an act of protest," said Gerri Gershon, the president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association in Toronto. "Others say it was an act of survival to protect programs and services for students."

When school began in Ontario Sept. 3, almost a fourth of the province's 2 million public school students were attending classes under provincial control, including those in Canada's capital, Ottawa.

"It was a real slap in the face for trustees," said Jim Libbey, the chairman of the Ottawa-Carleton district school board, which enrolls about 79,000 students. Hamilton-Wentworth enrolls about 59,000.

View From the U.S.

The Toronto takeover means that the 270,000-student school system is the largest district in North America to lose local control of its schools to state or province-level officials. Pennsylvania seized control of Philadelphia's 200,000-student district last year.

The Ontario takeovers differ from state intervention in U.S. districts because they were triggered by a conscious and coordinated political act of opposition. Most U.S. district takeovers tend to be sparked by mismanaged spending, poor student achievement, political patronage, and nepotism, said Michael D. Usdan, a senior fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington.

Provincial leaders believe they had little choice but to assume control of the three "rebel" districts. Bruce D. Skeaff, the senior spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Education, said all 72 school districts in the province have been legally required to submit balanced budgets for provincial approval since 1933.

"We have to make sure that schools opened [Sept. 3], and that teachers get paid and bus drivers get paid and that students are going to get educated," he added.

But Mr. Libbey, of the Ottawa-Carleton school board, said the government's alternative was clear: resolve the school aid formula's persistent problems that have left local trustees operating schools on bare-bones budgets. The Ontario school boards' association estimates that public schools throughout the province are underfunded by more than $4 billion because government funding for education has not kept pace with increased costs and inflation rates.

According to Mr. Skeaff, the provincial government, which increased its $14.2 billion education budget by $500 million this year, has acknowledged that the school funding formula must be reviewed. A task force examining the funding system is set to make recommendations in November, he added.

Philosophical Conflicts

The underlying debate in the funding standoff, however, is what constitutes a "good public education," said Ken Leithwood, the associate dean of research for the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, based at the University of Toronto.

The Ontario government's current school funding formula leaves little flexibility to pay for programs outside the classroom, Mr. Leithwood said. The formula, which was first adopted in 1998, also took away trustees' ability to raise taxes locally for schools and reduced flexibility in spending.

The Toronto audit made a point of emphasizing the marked difference in education philosophy between district and provincial officials. "To some [Toronto] trustees, virtually every societal issue is thought to have education roots. ... Trustee spending beyond the province's education definition obviously will lead to a cash budget shortfall," auditors wrote.

Through past property-tax levies, the school board association's Ms. Gershon explained, Toronto's residents supported parenting, outdoor education, and language programs that Ontario did not subsidize.

Added Mr. Leithwood of the University of Toronto: "The trustees in these three cases believe that a broader set of social responsibilities had to be met if they were going to be successful in educating their children."

The provincial intervention has left trustees in Toronto, Ottawa-Carleton, and Hamilton-Wentworth in an advisory role with little power.

That's why Donna Cansfield, the chairwoman of the Toronto board, had voted to pass a balanced budget and accept a $45 million provincial grant to soften the impact of the anticipated $90 million deficit in a $2 billion budget.

She also believes that the government's social-services division should be responsible for the out-of-classroom programs currently supported by the Toronto board.

Frustrated that the trustees have lost their governance power, Ms. Cansfield likens the dispute to a tug of war, with the opponents each "holding an arm of a kid."

Coverage of international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

Vol. 22, Issue 2, Pages 1,16

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