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Hamilton school boards receive additional government aid, though budget questions remain

·3 min read

As the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) wrestles with a lingering budget deficit, the city’s education system is set to receive an additional $2.6 million in federal government funding to cover the costs of teachers, supplies and safety enhancements related to COVID-19.

On Thursday, Minister of Education Stephen Lecce announced the province would release $13.6 million in funding it had received from the federal government in September to provide to several Ontario school boards.

The province received a total of $50 million from Ottawa for school-related pandemic costs, more than half of which went to school boards in Toronto, Peel and the Ottawa region. On Thursday, the remainder was released to boards in Hamilton, Halton, Durham, Waterloo and elsewhere.

“The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board welcomes the additional funding from the Ministry of Education as they consider Hamilton a high priority region. Trustees have advocated for more resources as the pandemic continues to strain school board operations,” HWDSB chair Alex Johnstone wrote in a statement.

“Our share of the funding will continue to support keeping our schools safe.”

The HWDSB will receive $1.6 million in funding, while Hamilton’s Catholic board will receive $1 million.

The figure is a welcome surprise for Hamilton’s public board, which wrote to the ministry earlier in November asking for additional funding.

The board had initially anticipated it would receive $500,000, though the total rose to $1.6-million when the province decided not to distribute the funding to all school boards in Ontario.

Johnstone said the funding will be put toward costs like personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.

“This is stuff that our regular budget does not have sufficient funds to cover in a normal year,” Johnstone told The Spectator.

The board has faced financial concerns in recent weeks following a major funding shortfall due to lower student enrolment.

In early November, the board reported it’s total enrolment had decreased by approximately 1,756 students, meaning the board would lose out on $15.2 million in funding from the province’s annual Grants for Student Needs (GSN).

The shortfall is the primary reason that the board now faces a significant budget deficit of roughly $18 million by the end of the school year, which would likely prompt cuts to student programs in future years if passed.

On Thursday, the province also announced a “stabilization fund” for schools facing budget shortfalls — something the HWDSB has advocated for in recent weeks.

The funding is “to help alleviate some of the impacts of unexpected enrolment declines as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the ministry of education announced.

It is unclear, however, if the funding will cover the entirety of the board’s $15.2 million decrease.

Johnstone said the board is waiting for the province to tell them how much the new funds will cover.

“We still need to see what the numbers are. I want to acknowledge that, on the surface, it sounds like the province is committing to give the boards what they’re asking for. With that said, we don’t know yet if our needs will be sufficiently met,” Johnstone said.

The board has expressed concern, in recent weeks, that it’s projected budget deficit could likely exceed the threshold allowed by the ministry.

The ministry has said that it will accept budget deficits that comprise no more than two per cent of a board’s entire budget. If the HWDSB runs an $18 million deficit, it will exceed that threshold by approximately $6.8 million.

In that situation, the board would have to cut future programming.

“We’d be supporting students today by robbing the students of tomorrow of much-needed programs,” Johnstone said.

The board could stave off that scenario if the funding the province provides allows the board to run a deficit within the two per cent threshold.

Jacob Lorinc, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator