For the first time ever, Ontario has an openly lesbian education minister. Kathleen Wynne, a former Toronto District School Board (TDSB) trustee and MPP for Don Valley West, was appointed to the position last month. Meanwhile, in Toronto, we can also boast an openly lesbian chair of the TDSB. You’d think this would be the dawn of a new and glorious age for the city’s queer and trans students, a time when the TDSB would finally live up to its languishing equity policies and become a beacon of queer-positivity and diversity. Think again.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle standing in the way is money. This year the province has offered up $2.25 billion for the TDSB, but the school board has a proposed budget of $2.34 billion, leaving a shortfall of approximately $84 million. Under the Ontario Education Act it’s illegal for a school board to run a deficit, so that’s $84 million that’s got to be found or else be cut from the budget.
Last month saw a series of public consultations on the budget crisis (read: What do you think TDSB should cut?). I don’t know about you, but I don’t know how comfortable I am with exposing queer initiatives like the much-needed Triangle Program to the will of the majority (for more on the Triangle Program turn to page 12).
How did the TDSB wind up in this mess? Consider the history. Toronto’s schools are still suffering from cuts that were made before many of the students who are currently in the system were even born. In the 1990s the provincial Conservative government under Mike Harris slashed education budgets and revoked local school boards’ abilities to levy taxes. In an attempt to pay for anything above and beyond the most basic of programs, money for everything from the equity department to building maintenance was reallocated just to keep schools running. The result? Crumbling buildings and a lack of staff to ensure that the board’s equity policies are being implemented. Our school system is playing catch-up and unless the problem is addressed it will only get worse.
On Oct 3 Wynne announced there would be no additional money this year for any of the four school boards in the province struggling to balance their budgets. Given her own experience railing against the Harris cuts as a TDSB trustee, I can only imagine how it must feel for her to have to make such an announcement.
For his part, Premier Dalton McGuinty has more or less told school boards that they should be happy they’re getting more money than they got under the Tories and that they’ll simply have to be more responsible with the money the province gives them. Sorry, Dalton, but that’s not going to cut it. As much as it may be unfair, the current provincial government needs to suck it up and dedicate the kind of money that will pull our education system out of the hole.
Cynic that I am, I wonder if the provincial Liberals won’t find a way to free up those funds a little closer to the next provincial election, scheduled for October 2007. While it’s doubtful that this hypothetical money would pay for such unsexy necessities as building upkeep, it would certainly give a boost to a party that has in all fairness had to deal with the consequences of a mess that was not of its creation.
The thing is, a year is a long time to wait when you’re a kid. It might mean a year of enduring homophobic bullying in the classroom, a year of not having access to a youth counsellor to turn to for support, a year of being ashamed or afraid to be queer. One year may be plenty long enough to cause a kid the kind of emotional and intellectual damage that could be with them for the rest of their life. Although all students are suffering under the current funding crisis, it’s the most vulnerable students who will suffer those most.
We can’t be playing politics with our kids’ futures. Queers, parents or not, need to join the chorus of voices calling for more money to be found for education. Our next generation is depending on it.