Large cuts, changes could follow school board elections

Use it or lose it

By Joel Ceausu

As the first school board election in seven years rolls closer across the province, many are sounding the alarm on how important this vote actually is, beyond who gets elected.

Commissioners, administrators and government officials have hinted, intimated and whispered for more than a year that if election turnouts don’t exceed its most recent dismal averages, then the status quo will soon be but a distant memory.

Does that mean chucking school boards? Probably not, but their days are numbered in their current form, agrees veteran St. Leonard EMSB commissioner Frank Verrillo, who is not running for re-election in November. “But I agree whole heartedly that we cannot afford to have a 17 per cent turnout, (roughly the last level by the English boards, more than twice the average of their French counterparts …) “We need to aim for a 60 per cent turnout, and hopefully get 35-40 percent. If we don’t then we’re destined for something major to happen.”

“Everything is on the table,” said Nazario Facchino, vice-chair of the Sir Wilfrid Laurier school board. After a meeting with the education ministry and the Quebec English School Boards Association, Facchino painted a disturbing picture of what’s to come: “The government is talking about a dramatic virage…Some of the things they are talking about are making severe administrative and structural changes affecting budgets not in the millions, but in the billions. We’re going to see legislation over the next 18 months.”

The Commission scolaire de Montréal is looking at $9 million cut from it’s nearly billion-dollar budget and an audit of their books, and the EMSB is slashing $3.8 million from this year’s budget that it will present this week.

“Slash and Burn”

Laurier chair Nick Milas echoed Nacchino’s comments at his board’s last pre-election council: “The only concern that I have is with the present minister of education Mr. Bolduc, after meetings that we have had, that he is going to slash and burn and that’s what’s he’s there for, to do.”

Verrillo would not go that far. “I don’t think this government or Minister Bolduc has in mind to make major cuts right now, but the question for elected officials is a valid one and we should all be concerned, because we really do have the government looking over our shoulder.”

What could it look like?

Facchino wouldn’t elaborate and the ministry is tight-lipped, but government and board sources say it could take the form of forced board mergers; colossal cuts to administrative budgets; hardball negotiations with teachers; and an unrelenting pressure for boards to rationalize resources even further, meaning closing or moving schools, aggressively searching for new revenue and more.

Verrillo says discussions need to take place on how all boards, specifically the EMSB, can redefine how it delivers services. “Can we afford three steams of schools? Where our schools are is also a major factor. We have schools that are full yet only 8-10 kids actually walk there, the rest are bussed. Maybe we’re better off closing it so another one can remain open. These are valid questions and have to be asked.”

Either way says Verrillo, who is “hanging up his skates” after a lifetime spent as a teacher, administrator and school commissioner, “we are going to have to get very proactive. The government does not want to do it for us, and anything we come up with will probably be well received.”

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