Some Ontario public teachers are furious that they are being asked to shoulder the burden of the province’s debt while it continues to fund a separate Catholic school system.
Members of Catholic school boards have been criticized for discriminating against queer students and teachers, most recently during a battle over gay-straight alliances (GSA) in Ontario.
“It just makes no sense,” says Geraldine Turkoski, a middle-school French teacher in Grand Erie. “Why do we have two school boards if [the province] doesn’t have any money?”
Turkoski was one of thousands of public school teachers who took part in a massive Aug 28 demonstration at Queen’s Park. Teachers were protesting controversial legislation that saw MPPs return to work two weeks early to consider a freeze to teacher wages and cuts to their benefits in order to battle the province’s $15 billion deficit.
Angry at the imposed legislation, some Ontario teachers are threatening to work-to-rule, which could put extracurricular activities and clubs at risk, such as GSAs, according to an Aug 30 story in The Globe and Mail.
“This does worry me because students who want to start a GSA may not be able to get the faculty support, or best faculty support that they could,” he says. “I don’t disagree with their intention, but their motives could seriously hurt some students.”
Education Minister Laurel Broten, who declined to speak to Xtra, has repeatedly said the harsh measures are necessary. But a recent study found that huge savings, as much as $1.5 billion, could be found by eliminating the separate Catholic school system.
The study’s author, William J Phillips, is past president of the Federation of Urban Neighbourhoods of Ontario, a former trustee and the past executive director and secretary treasurer of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association. “For years I asked, ‘Why do we waste all this money?’ We have to do some draconian things to save money in education right now . . . cuts that affect student activities,” he says. “We wouldn’t have to do that if we just merge the boards. Ontario simply can’t afford Catholic schools anymore.”
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation (ETFO) agrees. At its August AGM in Toronto, members voted unanimously on a motion to declare support for one secular school system for both official languages in Ontario.
“We want a fair system where there isn’t religious division and wasteful duplication,” says Pamela Dogra, a union representative for ETFO Toronto and a provincial executive for ETFO. “Times have changed; we need to move forward.”
“Every year, during the last two weeks of summer, I start to experience anxiety,” says a gay Toronto-area Catholic school teacher who asked to remain anonymous. “I’m not sleeping well. I get agitated. Going back into the closet every year has an effect. It’s always hard going back . . . Being a teacher doesn’t stop [when the bell rings]. We have to be fearful 24/7.”
Discrimination in the Catholic system also extends to queer students, who have previously been refused gay-straight alliance (GSA) support groups and continue to be taught based on pastoral guidelines that state gay people are “disordered” and “depraved.”
After Ontario passed the anti-bullying Accepting Schools Act (Bill 13) in June, some Catholic officials and parents vowed to fight its implementation.
“Separating our kids should never be public policy,” Phillips adds. “Governments should not be discriminating against different groups.”
Phillips, who used Ministry of Education budget numbers for his study, says it’s important to make the distinction that his figures are based on a “merge,” as opposed to an “amalgamation,” words that are often incorrectly used interchangeably. Catholic boards have long made the argument that few savings would come from an amalgamation.
“Of course, you don’t save a lot of money in amalgamation because you’re just amalgamating what already exists,” he says, “like when they amalgamated the boroughs into the City of Toronto. They didn’t get rid of anything.”
Phillips says merging would take Ontario from four boards to two: secular English and secular French. “That would immediately reduce the number of trustees,” he says. “Think of a company merger. When a merger happens, companies save a lot of money. They get rid of a lot of duplication.”
He says unused infrastructure could be sold and other savings found in cutting capital and administration costs, such as superintendent and director salaries.
As a result of decreased school enrolment across the province, many buildings are half empty, says John Witman, a Whitby science teacher. “Especially in the smaller communities. There are big schools with very few kids in them.”
NDP MPP and budget critic Michael Prue, who has been a vocal proponent of a merger, says Phillips’ calculations “seemed to make sense.”
When economist Don Drummond released his report on cost savings for cash-strapped Ontario in February, some pundits were surprised the separate school system was not recommended for the chopping block.
Prue says that behind the scenes many pushed hard to remind Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty of the “enormous” potential cost savings from eliminating Catholic boards.
“My understanding is Don Drummond was told that under no circumstances could he do anything on this particular issue. That order came from the premier’s office,” he says. “There was not even a single sentence.”
When reporters asked Drummond why cutting Catholic schools was not even being considered, he simply replied, “Because of the constitution issue.”
That answer doesn’t sit well with teachers now being forced to take a wage freeze.
However, the Liberals aren’t alone. All three major political parties have slammed the door on discussions about modernizing Ontario’s school system.
“The NDP position is to do nothing at this time and I am bound by that,” Prue says. “Many are deathly afraid that even mentioning this issue would cost votes.”
As the province sends teachers back to school with some unions still threatening a labour dispute, Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner is reminding Ontarians that all taxpayers contribute to Catholic schools in the province, whether they like it or not.
“We have now seen education crises under NDP, PC and Liberal governments,” states Schreiner in a news release. “This will happen again and again, unless the old parties get the courage to have a discussion on ending wasteful duplication in our current school system.”
Projected Cost Savings From the Merger of Ontario Public and Separate School Systems