Thursday, October 19, 2006

Education Rant (feel free to skip)

In my spare (hah!) time, I serve as a voting member of the Parent Council for my daughter’s high school. I just started my third year on the council, and I am finally beginning to understand some of the dysfunctions that attend everything that schools do (and don’t do).

Our local school trustee dropped into last night’s parent council meeting to give us the lowdown on the only issue that seems to matter in Toronto education: the great budget squeeze. Essentially, if the 22 trustees on the TDSB don't get into the real world and agree to swallow some budget cuts to narrow the huge gap between its income and its spending, the province will appoint its own administrator to run the school board – for the second time in four years!

Our trustee is what I would call a fiscal conservative – he believes in toeing the line and making the necessary cuts. A number of counselors, standing on some sort of principle, seem to oppose any cuts at all. (You may remember that last month the publisher of the Los Angeles Times recently stood up to his corporate masters at Tribune Co. and refused to cut staff as he’d been ordered. Two weeks ago he was fired.)

The problem is that the various factions are so busy fighting over spending that they're not focused on the big problem, which is revenue. Provincial operating grants and the municipal property taxes that fund them don't come close to paying for today’s education. Not only does the province not pay for everyday necessities such as lunchroom monitors, they structurally underfund everything else: teachers’ salaries, maintenance, facilities repair, etc.

The result is a city full of schools that are physically falling apart. As I documented to the council and the trustee in a PowerPoint presentation last night, our school is a mess of peeling paint, crumbling concrete, rusting columns, poor drainage, and some sort of growth that could be mould.

I’m all for low taxes and governments that live within their means, but who asked the province to let our schools crumble? Our school system is based upon – in fact defined by – schools, classrooms and other physical facilities. Good stewardship demands that we maintain these facilities in proper shape that will let future generations get the most out of them too. Otherwise we are engaging in false economy – lying to ourselves about what clever budgeters we are, and cheating the next generation of students and taxpayers.

Yes, the system needs reforms. If principals were allowed to hire their own sub-contractors, they could fix things faster and cheaper than the centralized education bureaucracy can dream of. As it is, the school board’s hands are so tied into the building trades and unions that it can’t afford to undertake the projects that would actually create more work for the trades.

So yes, the whole system is dysfunctional. But education is a provincial responsibility, and Ontario has an election coming up next year. Time to make a little noise.

We owe it to the children.

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