At the Upper Grand District School Board Meeting last Tuesday, a series of meetings about the budget for the 2020/2021 school year were cancelled because the board is still waiting for documents from the Ministry of Education that they need to finalize the budget. With a deadline of June 30 for the final budget to be submitted to the ministry, school boards across Ontario have 30 days to get their financial plans in order even through there are still so many questions that have to be answered.
“There is a skeleton budget that the staff have been working on, and I know that they’ve been working on the process, speaking to people and developing the budget, but until you have the money on hand you’re not going to finalize it,” said Linda Busuttil, Trustee of Wards 2, 3, and 4 on the Upper Grand School Board, and a representative for Central West at the Ontario Public School Board Association.
“At the April board meeting, we approved our staffing allocation for elementary and secondary students based on our enrollment, so that’s in place, now we’re waiting for the technical papers and the GSN,” Busuttil added. “We’re waiting for the revenue side, we’ve done most of the work on the expenses.”
The GSN is the Grants for Student Needs, which is the funding formula used by the Ministry of Education to determine how much money each school board receives. There are two major components to the GSN, the “Foundation Grant,” which is allocated based on student enrollment, and the “Special Purposes Grant,” which is directed for “unique needs” as determined by the demographics of each specific board.
Last year’s guide to the GSN was 18 pages long, and determined how $24.66 billion in education spending across Ontario’s 76 school boards was to allocated. Right now, those 76 boards are trying to make big decisions for next year’s budget without knowing how much they’re getting from the Government of Ontario.
“We generally know what our expenditures are going to be, but it’s impossible to set a budget until we know what your revenue is going to be,” said Marino Gazzola, the chair of the Wellington Catholic District School Board. “Even if we were to get the GSN today that only gives our administration a month to finish the budget when we usually have three months to get things together. It’s not fair to the administration, and it doesn’t allow us to do the work properly.”
Busuttil and Gazzola both agree that the amount of planning they can do for their respective budgets is limited until they receive the GSN and other papers. According to Gazzola, the Wellington Catholic Board, which meets Monday, is still planning to proceed with their June budget meetings. “We have our meetings on the books and we’re prepared to go ahead with them if we get the information that we need,” he said.
And if they don’t?
“I guess we’ll have to deal with it when the time comes,” Gazzola added. “The government is going to have to show some leniency because if they don’t come down with the GSN for another week or two, there’s no way they can expect us to finalize the budget by June 30.”
Guelph Politico reached out to the Ministry of Education with a series of questions about when school boards might receive the GSN, and about the fiscal considerations for next year’s budget. A source for the ministry emailed back a statement that said they would be providing Ontario’s school boards with flexibility and support for their 2020/21 budget, and that they’re focused on giving those boards the assistance they need in these “unprecedented times.”
A Process Question
As you can imagine, budgeting for a school board is a process that goes on for months. According to Busuttil, budget request submissions are being made as early as November, while the Ministry starts consultation on the GSN in January. Enrollment projections for the next school year come in around mid-March, and that’s when all the soft numbers start to become hard.
“The staffing projections are based on enrollment. That’s how the funding works, and that also has to fit into the timing with unions around collective agreements,” Busuttil said.
Boards also have to consult with the public on their budget like municipal councils do with their budgets, and that process happens at the committee level throughout March and April. Further budget meetings happen in May and June, when the final budget document is ratified by the board and sent to the Ministry of Education for review. But even that’s not the end of the number crunching.
“You always get new enrollments over the summer as well, and that’s when the revised estimates come into play,” Gazzola added.
For the lay person, this sounds like the Ministry of Education may be creating a log jam for itself; the longer they push the deadline for the submission of board budgets, the less time they have to review those budgets before the start of the school year.
“I’m hoping they’ll have the proper set-ups in place,” said Beverly Eckensweiler, president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustee Association. “We need to know those numbers, and not only that, we need to have the time to work with the numbers to make sure that we’re putting the dollars and cents where they’re needed.”
According to Eckensweiler it’s not a matter of a lack of dialogue between her group, which represents all Catholic boards in the province, and the ministry. Information is changing weekly, she said, as the ministry races to stay on top of the evolving developments with COVID-19, including the move to online learning, and the recently cancelled school year. Logistically, she said, the Ministry of Education is dealing with a lot.
“That seems to be the new normal of the day,” Eckensweiler said. “I can’t imagine what they’re doing at the ministry level either, and I think the big thing that school boards are going to be dealing with is what funding we’ll need because of the COVID-19 crisis.”
Further budget complications from COVID-19 could include new cleaning measures, more classroom space for physical distancing, and personal protective equipment for teachers and staff. Whether or not school will be back in session in September is another big question; schools could remain closed, re-open completely or perhaps teachers and students will have to adapt to some kind of hybrid model.
“We don’t know what it’s gonna be like in the fall, but at the provincial level there are seven working tables that are working on returning to school in September,” Busuttil explained.
“There will be learning, we know that, but we don’t know what it will look like,” she added. “Whether or not schools are open, there are still commitments that have to be made like maintenance. You still need the custodians there doing all the operational checks like making sure water’s flushing and everything.”
According to Busuttil, the boards are being told that it’s “business as usual,” but boards and the ministry are also planning on an incremental basis right now because nothing is certain except that boards are still missing some key monetary information to start making those decisions for the fall.
“Nobody knows where we’re going to be in September, but even without the pandemic, there are preparations that need to be done before the new school year takes place,” Gazzola said. “Time’s running out, and we don’t have the tools to work with.”
“We’re just sitting by the phone literally waiting to hear when the date is,” Eckensweiler added. “Everybody’s just on standby, and that’s all they can do.”