News Local

Board considers program cuts

By Nathan Taylor, Orillia Packet & Times

Like it or not, it's a year of change for the Simcoe County District School Board.

Unprecedented declining enrolment and other cost pressures, along with keeping current with technology, have led to many late nights for trustees and staff as they continue working toward submitting a balanced budget to the Ministry of Education.

In order to balance the books by next month's deadline, staff is suggesting cuts to programs and a change in the roles of a number of principals, among other recommendations.

To save about $240,000, trustees are being asked to approve a measure that would see principals at schools with less than 200 students take on teaching responsibilities for an average of one day a week.

Orillia schools will not be affected by the proposal, but some in surrounding areas will be among the 15 schools on the list. They are Brechin Public School, Moonstone Public School and Warminster Elementary School.

"I think it's in the best interest of the students to not have principals teaching," said Jodi Lloyd, trustee for Ramara, Severn and Tay townships.

Many of the smaller schools don't have vice-principals, so to take their principals out of the office even for a day is a concern, she said.

Lloyd said she has received complaints from parents, saying "principals are pulled out of the schools an awful lot" as it is to attend off-site meetings and functions. If they assume teaching duties, "I'm worried we're asking a lot of them."

The solution to that is simple, said Orillia trustee Debra Edwards.

"We simply won't ask principals to attend so many meetings out of their schools," she said.

The "teaching principals," as they're being referred to, will be at schools that don't have the enrolment to warrant full-time principals, she said.

"In a perfect world, it wouldn't be necessary. It is necessary," Edwards said. "We are still wrestling with the sustainability of small schools."

Parents realize the value of small schools, she said, adding such measures are needed to ensure their survival.

"The ministry does not fund us adequately in order to not have teaching principals at small schools," she said.

The idea has its benefits, said Carol McAulay, superintendent of business and information technology services.

"It allows them to enrich their dialogue with teachers," she said.

At a school with 300 students, as opposed to one with 200 or fewer, "it just makes sense that there's going to be more issues with access to parents," she said.

It will be beneficial to the students, too, as the principals will be even more visible in the schools, she said, adding they won't require any training, as "they're teachers first."

At one day a week, "we think that's a reasonable use of their time," McAulay said.

Lloyd said she realized "it's motivated by budget, but it is a concern."

Similar concerns were voiced by the Simcoe County Elementary Teachers' Federation.

"Currently, principals are out of their buildings quite a bit," said federation president Janet Bigham. "It's going to affect programming for the kids. There will be little consistency."

If an emergency occurs while a principal is teaching, Bigham worries they won't be able to easily address the situation.

Bigham then questioned the board's decision last year to purchase BlackBerrys for school principals.

"If I was going to choose whether I would have a teacher in the classroom or buy 120 BlackBerrys, I would put a teacher in the classroom," she said.

"A lot of the reason" for equipping principals with the multi-purpose gadgets was safety, McAulay said, noting it provides them instant access to the student database while allowing communication with the board in emergency situations, regardless of their whereabouts.

READING PROGRAM COULD BE AXED

Ultimately, Bigham said, her concern "is the loss of teaching positions."

The loss of the reading recovery program, then, is unfortunate, she said.

"Having a teacher providing one-to-one support only makes sense that it'll be beneficial to students," she said.

But trustees had reservations about the sustainability of the reading recovery program and the number of students it reaches.

The program targets Grade 1 students in need of intensive reading instruction and is only in use at 48 schools.

"It's almost a luxury program," Lloyd said, adding it's expensive to the board.

By getting rid of it and bringing in 10 literacy coaches, the board is looking at a savings of just under $1 million, McAulay said.

Reading recovery is not offered beyond Grade 1, and unsatisfactory literacy test results for students in Grades 3 and 6 suggest not all students are taking the knowledge with them through their later elementary years.

Introducing literacy coaches instead "is a sustainable plan that will render good academic results for our students and work to improve our EQAO (Education Quality and Accountability Office) results," Edwards said.

The EQAO results are "not near where they should be," Lloyd said.

"When funding is short, we need to maximize the benefits to all students," she said, noting each school will have a minimum .2 full-time-equivalent literacy coach.

On the table at a budget meeting Wednesday night were motions to approve the operating budget ($473,531,600) and capital budget ($17,918,200). Instead, trustees voted in favour of an additional meeting, to be held June 3 at 6 p. m. at the Education Centre in Midhurst.

"I'm not at a point where I'm prepared to approve the budget," Lloyd said.

Trustees requested the additional time to review information from staff regarding school basic budgets and a technology plan.



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