RRDSB demands more funding from province

Merna Emara
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The Rainy River District School Board (RRDSB) sent Education Minister Stephen Lecce a letter requesting more funding to secure the enhanced personal protective equipment (PPE) and to support other modifications to remote learning costs.
Raymond Roy, chair of the RRDSB, wrote in the letter that the five month additional operating costs associated with reopening schools in the Rainy River District – which includes the costs of PPE, safety modifications, reliable access to the internet, and enhanced cleaning and disinfection – will cost about $1.9 million.
The Ministry of Education provided the RRDSB with $302,537 to offset the costs of reopening schools. However, Roy wrote in the letter that they are disappointed to not have received any funding to support remote learning in the northwestern region, “especially in a region of the province that is underserved in infrastructure to support regular synchronous student learning.”
Included in the board’s approved budget was $302,537 to offset the costs of reopening for the first five months of school. It included $60,000 in custodial staff, $120,000 in mental health supports, $50,000 in technology, $66,041 in Special Education Supports, $6,616 in additional cleaning supplies for schools and buses, and $16,969 in health and safety training for casual education assistants and other support staff. That funding was provided on August 4, 2020, according to the budget.
The province has approved the use of accumulated surplus to offset the costs of COVID-19. This surplus can be used for extra staffing, reducing class sizes or renting off-site facilities, according to a release from the province. But according to Roy, the RRDSB’s accumulated surplus has already been spoken for.
Although the 2020-2021 budget was balanced in operations, they borrowed from the surplus to cover additional expenses. When a board is in deficit, they can draw from the surplus the lesser of the accumulated surplus for the previous year, or one per cent of the board’s operating revenue.
The board required ministry approval to go over the maximum drawings. They allocated $225,423 to the Amortization of Board-funded Capital Projects and $477,713 to a Retirement Gratuity Obligation, for a total drawing of $703,136.
According to Roy’s letter to Lecce, that leaves only $188,000 surplus to draw from.
“In the RRDSB, our accumulated surplus funds have been built through careful budget management and have been earmarked for other board priorities and high need situations, including updating playground equipment, supporting the purchase of technological education equipment for our secondary school, and other special pilot projects, not funded by the province, which support student achievement and well-being,” Roy said in the letter.
Roy said even if RRDSB turns to the surplus, it will not offset the cost of reopening schools this fall. Roy added that the 2020-2021 school year is full of uncertainties as the board navigates covering the costs associated with operating in a pandemic.
“The extraordinary costs associated with safely reopening our schools should be fully covered by the provincial government, not the school board’s accumulated surplus funds,” the letter said.
Concerns over funding are also coming from Ellen Chambers, chair at Lakehead District School Board, who also wrote a letter to Lecce.
In August, Lecce said he “unlocked” $500 million in funding from the school board reserves to enhance physical distancing and improve air quality. Lecce also announced additional $50 million to maintain and upgrade ventilation systems and $18 million to support online learning created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
That being said, Chambers wrote that using reserve money creates inequities across the province in each board’s ability to access funds saved for augmenting programs, upgrades and special plans that directly improve students’ school experiences that may not be available through annual funding from the government.
Chambers requested the following:
• that all ventilation updates and improvements be fully funded by the Provincial Government;
• that all health and safety funding (PPE, cleaning supplies, custodians…) be fully funded by the Provincial Government;
• that the Provincial Government provide full funding to enhance proper physical distancing on all school buses; and
• that the Provincial Government provide full funding to enhance proper physical distancing in all classrooms (reducing class size, additional teachers and educational staff).
Comment from MPP Greg Rickford was sought, but none was provided as of press time.