Parent solutions to school budget woes dismissed

By Pamela Eadie

Ideas were few and far between at a recent public meeting intended to generate ways to cut more than $18 million from the Ottawa school board budget.

Merv Beckstead, the school board supervisor designated by the Ontario government to balance the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board budget, appealed to the public for help in finding cost-cutting solutions that will not negatively impact classrooms.

Most of the 17 presentations made by parents and concerned citizens at the Nov. 6 meeting were pleas to Beckstead not to cut funds from programs or to close schools.

“None of us would be here tonight if the provincial government would adequately fund the system,” said Sharon Chartier, a member of the Elgin Street Public School council.

She was one of the few people to suggest a way to save money — recommending bus sharing with the Catholic board, and cutting busing to non-required programs.

“We are one of the richest countries in the world. But we’re nickel and diming our education system,” said Richard Deadman, co-chair of the Lady Evelyn Alternative School council.

Other suggestions made at the meeting included eliminating the private school tax credit, making schools more energy efficient, and even cutting Beckstead’s paycheque.

But for the most part, speakers did not produce suggestions. Instead, they lobbied Beckstead to leave programs intact, including outdoor education, school-run daycare funding, music training and special education.

“When you talk about cuts to special needs, it makes me extremely nervous,” said Elmdale Public School parent Lyle Younger in an impassioned speech. “I am asking you to make sure my kid reaches his potential.”

Younger invited Beckstead to come to his home and meet his children, to see first-hand who his decisions would affect.

In an interview after the meeting, Beckstead dismissed Younger’s offer.

“It’s very touching and very moving, and I appreciate the invitation, but we have 80,000 students, so should I visit the rest as well? I just can’t do that,” he said.

Beckstead said the meeting had not produced any ideas that could easily eliminate over $18 million from the budget.

However, Margaret Tyson, a concerned citizen whose daughter graduated from Lisgar Collegiate Institute a few years ago, said Beckstead should look at the huge savings that could come from using less expensive, but high quality textbooks.

Tyson said the school board uses expensive textbooks that look like coffee table books.

Armed with a Grade 12 physics textbook used in British Columbia, she said a physics teacher in B.C. told her it cost only $12.

In contrast, an Ottawa student told her the replacement cost for a comparable text used by the Ottawa board is $98.

“You may say to yourself, do these out-of-province textbooks cover the same curriculum as Ontario? But I don’t think that’s a concern of the Ontario government, because Ontario’s approved textbooks often lack part of the curriculum anyways,” Tyson said.

Tyson is not impressed with the amount of money spent on expensive textbooks.

“Who needs all that? It’s just crap!” she said, thumbing through a textbook. “Who needs all that colour and glossy paper?”

Beckstead said he was not aware of the discrepancy in textbook costs.

“I hadn’t heard that before,” he said. “Keep in mind I’ve only been around here a few months.”

While most of the ideas, including cheaper textbooks, could produce long-term savings, Beckstead says they will not aid him in making immediate budget cuts.

The meeting, held at the Adult High School on Rochester Street, was the first of three public meetings held in Ottawa. Beckstead has until Nov. 25 to come up with a plan to balance the school board’s books.