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Gord Bowes

Crying poor and spending freely

The problem with Ontario’s education system was paraded across the Mountain last month, coming to a halt at an even bigger example of what’s wrong.

Over $1 million was spent on a giant moving truck to be parked behind a $31.6-million Taj Mahal, put there by a school board that has spent the last few years pleading poverty.

Trustee Wes Hicks couldn’t have been more correct when he called moving the 132-year-old Mohawk Trail School a mistake.

“In this day and age, to use education dollars to move a building is ridiculous,” he said, arguing the money would be better spent on a backlog of needed school repairs.

Repairs — and the cash to keep under-capacity schools going — have dominated the board’s agenda over the last four-and-a-half years. Not enough money to spend on decaying schools, not enough students to fill the seats. A funding formula set down by the province that encourages school closures.

Until about 20 years ago, tax money was plentiful and there was little spending restraint. School boards made sure they spent every cent the province gave them — if they didn’t, they wouldn’t get an increase next year.

Most of the money went into staffing costs (more employees, higher wages). The general culture permeating education offices was to spend a minimal amount on upkeep, knowing they could knock schools down later and build something new.

That’s what the public board did with its headquarters. You and I wouldn’t let our home go to seed in just 40 years. But that’s what the board did, knowing that one day they’d have tax money to build a new HQ.

Which brings us back to the nearly $33 million spent on moving an old school and building a grand new headquarters — for a board that complains about declining enrolment, it isn’t cutting back on administration.

Yes, the board and province will argue the money spent on those two projects wasn’t diverted from school repairs. It’s a separate pot of money for administrative expenses.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it? There’s a system in place that isn’t meeting the needs of communities across the province — and the Wynne government continues to wash its hands of any responsibility, saying it won’t get involved in local decisions.

The Liberals are more concerned with keeping a voting base (unionized education workers) happy, so the emphasis has been on keeping teacher numbers up through introduction of full-day kindergarten. One can understand the confusion among taxpayers when they hear of the need to close schools while every elementary school that remains open is expanded to allow for special new classrooms for the young students.

Get used to the closures. The Liberal government has warned of necessary cuts ahead to get the province’s debt in check, but has given no sign it plans to change the funding formula. It will dole out a little more to boards that want to close or merge schools, and there’s a little more money available for repairs, but the overall trend will not change.

— Gord Bowes is Editor of Mountain News

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