2 min

Equity at risk

Toronto students may soon fend for themselves

There’s a neat statistical trick used by conservative budget-slashers everywhere: Eliminate jobs that deal with inconvenient realities and those realities – at least on paper – disappear.

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB), which has been chipping away at its equity department for years, is now poised to employ this sneaky tactic through the termination of the department’s two remaining student program workers.

“We do programs with staff and students, and advocate for students with human rights complaints when the system fails them,” says tenuously employed student program worker, Ken Jeffers. “By eliminating us, you eliminate the incidents of homophobia in the schools.”

Jeffers and fellow student program worker Gulzar Raisa Charania were told last spring that their positions would be terminated at the end of this year, leaving just four instructional leaders to deal with a board-wide population of almost 300,000 elementary and secondary school students. The department is responsible for combating homophobia in the school system as well as other equity issues including racism, sexism and religious discrimination.

Although a labour dispute has now pushed the termination date off until next year – their union has been without a contract for 450 days – the equity positions are by no means secure. “There has been a stay of execution,” says Jeffers, “but certainly not an end to the executions.”

Jeffers was on hand to voice his concerns at a meeting last week of the Community Equity Reference Group (CERG) whose mandate is to advise the board of school trustees on equity matters. York-South Weston trustee Elizabeth Hill, who sits on the CERG, joined the chorus of frustration about cuts to the equity department and that it’s been more than a year since elected trustees have been watching Tory-appointed supervisor Paul Christie from the corner like naughty children.

“We’ve been under supervision for 14 months,” says Hill, “and looking at the TDSB website there are eight or nine people in communications. Compare that to equity. They are increasing the staff to spin the message about cutting staff.”

The board’s decision-making ability was suspended during a budget crisis last September. At that time the TDSB was running a $45-million deficit and Christie was sent in to sort things out. Now the deficit is more than $100-million.

“[Christie] was here to balance the budget. He was here because of the incompetent trustees…. They said we were dysfunctional, incompetent, stupid, all of these things,” said Toronto-Centre Rosedale trustee Sheila Ward at last week’s meeting. “Here comes the supervisor and 14 months later, it’s a $120-million deficit. He didn’t even have to worry about getting consensus. He was as close to a dictator as this country will ever see.”

Although Christie’s reign was terminated when the Liberals took over, the board is still under the supervision of a transitional co-management team and it’s unclear when they’ll be regaining full control. But when they do they’ll have their job cut out for them.

“You can’t possibly suggest that you can go through the kind of garroting of the system that we’ve gone through over the last six years and try to pretend and put on a happy face and say, ‘We are doing as good a job with equity as we did six years ago.’ That’s just plain nonsense. It’s just not true. It’s almost at that point where you say to yourself, how effective can they be? Let’s not pretend we have an equity department if you have two people trying to look after, you know, 300,000 people. Why pretend about this?”

And yet to the students who find themselves victims of harassment and abuse, having someone to turn to is crucial.

“Do two of us in the system make a big difference?” Jeffers asks. “Well, compared to nothing, yes. Students have no advocates in the system with us gone.”