Using reserve funds to cut class size a financial risk: TDSB

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TORONTO — Using reserve funds to lower class sizes to address COVID-19 concerns is a “financial risk” to Canada’s largest school board, its interim director said Friday as the Ontario government approved staggered starts to the school year.

Charlene Jackson issued the warning in a memo to Toronto District School Board trustees after the Ontario government said Thursday it would allow boards to access $500 million of their own reserve funds to achieve physical distancing in classrooms.

The TDSB has already set $131 million in reserve funding aside for future obligations, she said.

“It would not be prudent or good financial management if we were to use a large amount of reserve funds to cover the entire cost of smaller class sizes,” Jackson said.

The government said Thursday that it wants to offer school boards more “flexibility” to cut elementary class sizes to address pandemic safety concerns and would allow boards to access their surpluses.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce described the funds as “rainy day” savings that can help immediately. The government will also spend $50 million to update school ventilation systems, and another $18 million to hire principals and support staff to administer online learning.

Jackson said board staff are looking at whether some of its reserves could be used to augment the TDSB’s portion of a previously announced $30 million fund for staffing to cut elementary class sizes to 15 to 20 students.

The chairwoman of the Toronto Catholic District School Board said the government announcement is not “new money,” but is instead funding built up by boards over years to pay for needs like technology updates.

“How is this fair to students across province?” Maria Rizzo said on Twitter. “I think boards had ability to use reserves before announcement today. Very confusing.”

The Greater Essex County District School Board, which serves one of the regions hardest hit by COVID-19, had already planned to dip into its reserve fund, spokesman Scott Scantlebury said.

The trustees voted earlier this week to approve drawing nearly $3.3 million from the reserve to cover expenses related to the pandemic for which no direct funding has been provided by the government.

But the board has yet to nail down what those expenditures will be, Scantlebury said, because the province keeps announcing new funding, even with the first day of school less than a month away.

“It’s like trying to play chess with someone who keeps tipping the board,” he said.

To account for Thursday’s announcement, the Halton District School Board announced it would be extending a deadline for parents to opt into or out of sending their kids back to class.

“Given that this new information may change our Reopening Schools Plan, the deadline to complete the Intent to Return survey will be extended,” the board tweeted. “A revised date will be communicated to families.”

On Friday, the Ministry of Education announced it will allow boards to stagger the start of school year.

“School boards will be permitted to adopt a staggered start to the first week of the school year, such as allowing different grades to return on different days, if boards feel that this would contribute to students learning new routines and for new health and safety practices to be reinforced,” a memo to boards said.

Boards will not need to ask permission to any previously approved school calendars, the ministry said.

The move comes a day after Lecce said he would be open to allowing boards to stagger school starts if they felt it would help improve safety.

Meanwhile, Ontario is reporting 92 new cases of COVID-19 today with one new death due to the virus.

Ontario’s total case count is now 40,459, with 36,772 marked as resolved and 2,788 deaths.

The province says it processed 30,137 tests over the last 24 hours.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on August 14, 2020.

Shawn Jeffords and Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press