TDSB head defends handling of money earmarked for at-risk students
Education director says board has some discretion over how to deploy resources after explosive report says millions being diverted in bid to balance budget.
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The head of Toronto’s public school board has fired back at critics who say millions of dollars in provincial grants earmarked for at-risk students aren’t reaching them.
The learning opportunities grant goes directly to “programming, staff and services” and is being used for its intended purpose, John Malloy, education director at the Toronto District School Board, told reporters Thursday.
“It is directly connected to student achievement. It does support our students at risk, but it also supports their classmates as well.”
Malloy made the comments hours after the release of an explosive report from Social Planning Toronto, which said the TDSB is diverting millions of dollars of the annual learning opportunities grant designated for its neediest students and using it for other purposes as it struggles to balance its $3.3-billion budget.
The report from the social policy research group said $61 million — 48 per cent of the $127 million “demographic allocation” portion of the grant — did not go directly to programs and services aimed at low-income students in 2014-15. And it noted the grant is one of the few that allows school boards discretion in how they deploy those resources.
It also placed much of the blame squarely on the province for underfunding the Toronto board and forcing it to “rob Peter to pay Paul.”
But Malloy said while poverty is a key issue in Toronto, there are other ways that students can be considered vulnerable, and that funds spent across the school board help many of those.
The grant covers items ranging from breakfast programs and homework clubs to Model Schools for Inner Cities, a program that provides extra funding and community supports at 150 high-needs schools. The grant is also used for things like outdoor centres that serve students of all socioeconomic backgrounds. And that falls well within the provincial guidelines for the grant, Malloy stressed.
“What I do want to state emphatically is the grant is not used inappropriately based on what the regulation expects,” he said.
That money doesn’t go towards keeping the lights on or heating the buildings, he added.
Malloy said the TDSB and Social Planning Toronto have different views on the how the grant should be used. While the advocacy group asserts it should all go to students in poverty, the board is adhering to a broader definition permitted by the province.
That’s “technically right,” says Sean Meagher, executive director of the organization. But he argues that the explicit purpose of the “demographic allocation” of the grant is to level the playing field for students of different demographic backgrounds.
“That’s why the city of Toronto gets it.”
Instead, $61 million of it is going into the board’s general revenue and there is no clear way to track how those dollars are being used, he added.
He said while serving all students is important, that was not the purpose of this particular money, which the report argues should be “sweatered” so that boards have to adhere to stricter rules on how it is spent.
Last year the TDSB launched an Enhancing Equity Task Force, which includes outside experts and consultants, to tackle the thorny issue, which has been a matter of contention over the last few years among some researchers and trustees. It will look at how resources for at-risk students are used, their impact and future priorities. It is due to make recommendations next November.
Education Minister Mitzie Hunter said in a statement Thursday that when it comes to allocating funds, locally-elected school boards “are in the best position to make decisions that support local priorities based on student needs and available staff and resources.”
“This grant is focused on addressing the needs of students and cannot be used towards central board administration costs,” she added. “I expect school boards to remain committed to using this grant in a way that prioritizes the success and well-being of students.”
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