All summer long we’ve been subjected to the battling between the province and school boards over budgets here in Ontario. Opinions have been flying back and forth about how to fix the problems, ranging from fixing the funding formula, to charter schools, to just throwing more money at the problem.
Here in the outlying areas of Ottawa were suffering especially. There has been a population explosion in the areas of Ottawa outside the greenbelt: Manotick, Barrhaven, Osgoode, Stittsville and other areas. Families live out here. Not singles, or urban professional couples. According to Elections Canada, our riding of Nepean-Carleton has a population of 126,638 with an electoral roll of 88,454. Compare that to Ottawa-Centre with a population of 114,032 and 93,551 electors. There are nearly 40,000 residents of Nepean-Carleton ineligible to vote compared to just over 20,000 in Ottawa-Centre ineligible. The majority of those ineligible to vote are children.
The population explosion outside the greenbelt, and the rural history of this area have created some unique problems:
- Our schools are bursting at the seams. South Carleton High School, for example, has a student population of 1350, making it the fourth largest school in the OCDSB system.
- The schools tend to be far apart. Manotick children attend Manotick Elementary, Rideau Valley Middle School (in Kars), and South Carleton High (in Richmond). The Manotick area, despite huge growth, has no high school of its own. Children are bused across the former township lines from Rideau to Ghoulborn a 20 kilometre ride. My high school age son catches his bus at 7:20 AM.
- Our schools are also amongst the oldest in the system, reflecting the relatively static nature of the prior population.
- Our classroom sizes are huge.
There is a capacity problem out here. Certainly the Catholic School board seems to be addressing the issue: St. Marks High School is right here in Manotick, and just up Jockvale Road, the new St. Josephs has been built. Why can’t the OCDSB?
The OCDSB is hostage to the legacy of school board amalgamation, and older downtown schools. Up until recently, the Ontario Government refused to fund Catholic High Schools, arguing that the constitutional guarantees granted to Catholics in Ontario only extended to Grade 8. The courts ruled against the Government, and, flush with cash, the Catholic school boards began to build. Of course, they built where population counts demanded they build.
It’s been widely suggested that the OCDSB should just close some of the schools in Ottawa-Centre, and build new schools on the outskirts. That’s what the provincial funding formula would suggest is required. Parents in those downtown areas, however, have objected strenuously, despite the fact that their schools are under-capacity right now. And what parent wouldn’t object to closing the neighborhood school?
Another solution would be roll back the clock on the school board reforms that have been coming fast and furious since the 1960s. Since the 60s, Ontario has been aggressively amalgamating school boards in the name of efficiency. We went from over 1,000 boards to approximately 300 and finally to the roughly 140 that exist today.
We also changed the funding mechanism for our schools. At one time, school boards had the right to ask for levies to fund their work. Now they no longer do.
Let’s split the boards up again. Let’s reduce the role of the Province to mandating and funding the provincially required curriculum, setting standards, and monitoring to make sure those standards are being maintained. Let’s give the community back the right to raise money without the help of the Province, and to set our own community standards for education.
Doing that would have four benefits:
- The fight that exists in Ottawa between downtown parents and suburban parents over closing schools would go away. We would be in different school boards. If the downtown parents want to keep their under-capacity schools, they can simply vote on an additional property tax levy.
- The bus travel rural children have to endure in order to go to school would go away. If we Manotick parents want our own high school, we could just vote to get one built.
- The concerns that we rural parents have over the quality and age of the school buildings that our children use could be dealt with. We could simply vote to upgrade the buildings.
- The classroom size issue that every school in this province is facing, and the morale, teaching, and discipline problems created by those huge classes could be dealt with. We could simply vote for a levy to hire more teachers.
The answer to solving these problems isnt another provincial funding formula, another attempt to harmonize education programs provincially, or more money raised by the province. It lies with us, here, in the community. We just need the ability to address the problems at a community level instead of having the solutions handed down from Queens Park.