High transportation costs, inflation prompts Waterloo region school board to send letters to education minister

Trustees with the Waterloo Region District School Board have passed the budget for the 2023-24 school year.

But in doing so, they were “forced to make some very difficult decisions regarding staffing and resources,” chairperson Joanne Weston wrote in a letter to Ontario’s Minister of Education Stephen Lecce.

The board’s letter, dated June 27 and which has also been published on the school board’s website, has asked Lecce to review how school boards are currently being funded and “address some of the critical gaps” the board is facing.

Among the top concerns is transportation, Weston said in an interview with CBC News.

“We haven’t received enough funding for [transportation] in a number of years,” Weston said. “That continued to be a pressure and there was a funding model change and we’re seeing even more pressure this year.”

Starting this fall, the province will change how it funds transportation. In a letter to directors of education in April, the province said the transportation services allocation would be based on:

  • How many students need the bus based on their home’s distance from school.
  • The optimal number of bus routes needed while also considering public transit.
  • Creating “transparent benchmarks” around the cost of services including the annual cost of purchasing and operating buses, changes to the price of fuel, and setting compensation for school bus drivers.

The letter from the board said the changes were a “positive step forward” but they’ve also created some additional financial pressures.

Portrait of a woman wearing glasses and a black coat.
Joanne Weston is the current chairperson for the Waterloo Region District School Board and says transportation is a big part of where trustees felt a pinch of funding during budget deliberations. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

“Our existing contracts with operators, which were competitively procured, have increased built-in that are tied directly to the consumer price index (5.8 per cent); the new funding model does not address the specific escalation clauses transportation consortia have built into their agreements ,” the letters said.

As well, the board often uses minivans or taxis for students with exceptional needs. Those are not funded under the new model.

“That’s a significant pressure,” Weston said.

Other costs rise

Other areas in which the board is seeing costs go up include:

  • Inflation impacting day-to-day operations of schools, with the board anticipating an approximate 15 per cent increase for commodities and contracts. Software license increases are expected to be between five and seven per cent. The ministry has provided a two per cent non-salary benchmark increase, which the board’s letter says is “insufficient.”
  • Canada Pension Plan enhancement, which has been phased in since 2019, but there’s “no evidence” the ministry of education funding has increased as the boards have had to pay more toward the plan. The board has no choice when it comes to paying more to CPP as it’s a statutory requirement.
  • An increase in staff taking short-term sick leave has made costs rise and the board says because sick-time provisions are centrally negotiated by the province, the board has limited options to address this issue. The ministry has acknowledged the boards are feeling financial pressure from short-term sick leave, the letter says.

Weston says the board staff and trustees worked hard to ensure the budget had minimal impact on students and classroom staff.

“But ultimately it is a shortfall,” Weston said. “These are difficult times in our budget and we have to make some difficult decisions.”

Other boards feel funding pressure

WRDSB isn’t alone when it comes to raising concerns about funding for the upcoming school year.

The Greater Essex County District School Board in Windsor says it anticipates an overall $4.5-million deficit in the upcoming school year. A large part of that because of increased enrollment of students who require special educational needs.

Earlier this month, the Ottawa-Carlton District School Board approved a $1.1-billion operating budget, but chair of the board Lyra Evans said in a statement on the board’s website that they are “critically underfunded.”

A man stands in a library.
Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce has been asked to review how school boards are funded. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

“We should not be debating whether we reduce supports for special education or other students who are the most vulnerable. Society needs to have a hard conversation on how much provincial funding is actually needed to truly deliver the education students deserve,” Evans said.

In April, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation said the annual Grants for Student Needs released by the province in April included “major cuts to funding” for school boards.

The union’s president, Karen Littlewood, said in a press release that the government was “short-changing public education. They actually removed some of last year’s funding, including over $300 million in funding for the COVID-19 Learning Recovery Fund, to make the funding numbers for the 2023-24 school year seem artificially high by comparison.”

The teachers’ union also cited reports from the Ontario Financial Accountability Office that found the Ontario government was not spending its full allotted budget on education. The 2022 report, for example, found the government spent almost $1 billion less than the previous year on education, largely due to less spending on pandemic-related programs.

Tuesday afternoon, a spokesperson for Lecce’s office said in an emailed statement that the government had invested “historic amounts” for student transportation.

The spokesperson said the Waterloo Region District School Board has received increased overall funding to the board.

“Our government provides funding that can be used for multiple methods of student transportation outside of bussing,” the spokesperson added.

“Our government will continue to make the necessary investments to ensure our students get to and from school safely.”

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