Budget deficit a challenge for UCDSB chair

John McAllister (right), UCDSB chair during his recent swearing-in. With him is with Justice John M. Johnston. (UCDSB/Contributed photo)

BROCKVILLE – The new chair for the Upper Canada District School Board sees dealing with a significant budget deficit and improving communication as key goals for 2019.

Chair John McAllister was interviewed by The Leader, looking ahead to the challenges facing the board in the next 12 months. McAllister said that the upcoming budget is going to be difficult, in part because of the August arbitration ruling on transportation.

“We have an ongoing increase of $9-10 million per year,” McAllister said. “We don’t yet have a crisis, but the rubber is going to hit the road in March when we have to set a new budget.”

The UCDSB and the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario were hit with three years of retroactive costs totaling $30 million. The UCDSB portion of that settlement is $18 million.

McAllister said that the board has already consulted with the four MPP’s which represent the area served by the UCDSB, Steve Clark, Jim McDonell, Randy Hillier, and Amanda Simard.

He said that the board has also been talking to the deputy Minister of Education Nancy Naylor about the transportation issues facing the board, and the arbitrator’s ruling.

“The UCDSB and the CDSBEO are the first to face this, yet,” he said.

McAllister was unable to discuss the ruling or the ongoing litigation between Student Transportation of Eastern Ontario, the consortium owned by the two boards, and the bus operators over the implemented request-for-proposal process as the matter is still before the courts.

The school board’s budget was passed in June 2018 with $1.8 million deficit, less than the one percent deficit allowed by the ministry.

“Our fourth quarter results show a $9.5 million deficit,” McAllister said. “This will be ongoing, that is the situation we’re dealing with.”

He said that the special education budget is already overspent because the previous government cut that funding by 25 percent, and that salaries take up 85 per cent of the total board budget.

McAllister said he had no time line on a response from the province but was hoping to meet education minister Lisa Thompson soon.

To deal with the budget issues, he said that the board is going to have to tighten its belt.

“There isn’t a lot of fat to cut,” McAllister added. He said that the board will have to realign its priorities and that there may have to be adjustments to programming or transportation to cover the shortfall. School closures are not on the table however.

“If it occurs, it will not happen in the next four-to-five years,” McAllister said. “These things are not on the table.”

Despite the budget challenges facing the board, McAllister plans to accomplish many things in the next 12 months. Those include improving cooperation at the trustee board level.

“I want the board to be a place where trustees can feel comfortable airing views,” he said.

McAllister wants to improve and increase the profile of the board in all regions served, not just in the Brockville area.

“One of the biggest challenges with this board is geography,” he said. “How can someone in Alexandria have a kinship with the board office in Brockville?”

To enhance communication between the board and municipalities, McAllister plans on making a presentation to each of the four county councils in the region.

“We want people to be comfortable with their home school,” he said. “Student engagement with their school is always a difficult issue. The more connected students feel, the more things improve at a school.”

Targeting the connection between school and students, McAllister said that the board’s strategic plan is to help reduce student stress and increase graduation rates. The board’s plan is to increase graduation rates by two per cent this year to 88 per cent.

“The ultimate goal is 90 per cent, which is five per cent higher than the Ministry of Education,” McAllister said.

He credited the Rural and Northern Education funding with assisting that goal by providing funding to high schools for a second full-time guidance counsellor.

“It is one of the most significant measures the previous government has provided to high schools,” he added.

That funding was implemented in 2017 at the same time as the province’s school closure moratorium. The RNE funding ends at the end of the 2018-19 school year. So far there has been no word if that funding will be continued, which McAllister said is one of the biggest challenges with provincial funding.

Creation of a long term sustainable funding program for education is one of the top items McAllister hopes will come out of the province’s recent public education consultation.

“There needs to be a recognition of the unique needs of rural Ontario, especially Eastern Ontario,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do, not a place I can go, that I can’t do without getting in my car and driving somewhere.”

McAllister said that situation applies to many of the schools and students in the board.

“There are schools where every student is transported by bus,” he said. “There needs to be a recognition of that reality and funding for it.”