Right now, the only place in the province where the school age population is growing is the 905 area of southern Ontario.
But the province doesn't have any new money to spend in this region, according to Rainbow District School Board director of education Norm Blaseg.
Instead, the province is looking to save money by asking school boards in areas where school enrolment is declining to amalgamate with other boards or share certain services, he said.
These savings could then be reallocated to the 905 area, Blaseg said, and like most other places in the province, enrolment in Northeastern Ontario schools is going down.
The province is currently undertaking consultations with the province's school boards to discuss the issue.
This spring, the government announced it is hoping save $10 million on non-classroom expenditures in 2013-14. In some cases, that might mean merging with other school boards, and in others, sharing certain services.
“Our approach to this important discussion will not be driven by ideology, it will be driven by what makes sense,” Education Minister Laurel Broten said in a May 29 press release.
“Our approach will not be driven by preconceived ideas, but instead by genuine consultation. We need to hear from our trustee, parent, teacher, staff and school board partners because they are the local experts who know what makes sense for their communities.”
On July 6, a senior Ministry of Education staffer met with senior officials from all of the school boards in Northeastern Ontario.
They really stressed at that time that this was going to be an evolutionary process, and there wasn't any road map that had already been assigned...
director of education with the Rainbow District School Board
“It was an exploration of how we might go about talking or having conversations about amalgamation,” Blaseg said.
“They really stressed at that time that this was going to be an evolutionary process, and there wasn't any road map that had already been assigned, in terms of how it should unfold.”
More extensive consultations on the issue will be held this fall, Blaseg said.
In terms of what might happen to the Rainbow board, he said the board went through an amalgamation in the 1990s, bringing together the English public boards in Sudbury, Espanola and Manitoulin Island.
“We have to have talks with other boards to see where they see themselves, but at this point, we do not see ourselves in a position that we would have to seek out other boards to join us,” Blaseg said.
“Unless we see some parameters that tell us otherwise, we feel that we are in pretty good shape as a board, and we are sustainable.”
Of course, the province could have other ideas, he said.
“I'd hate to speculate at this time, but anything's possible,” Blaseg said. “It may come down to the ministry says 'You need to look at plan A, B and C,' and we would have to take a look at that and see where we end up.”
Sharing services with other boards is another matter, he said.
“What we might explore is, are there any other opportunities where the four boards in the Sudbury area might be able to get together to find some other savings in the area of back-office,” Blaseg said, such as human resources. "That is not about amalgamation. It is an opportunity to look at cost-sharing.”
Catherine McCullough, director of education with the Sudbury Catholic District School Board, said her board has already had these discussions with its French Catholic counterpart — Conseil scolaire catholique du Nouvel-Ontario.
“We have always had a very collegial relationship with them, and so we've looked at some things we can do together,” she said.
“Right now we share printing services together. We're looking at some possibilities for our facilities services.”
As for whether the Sudbury Catholic board might be required to merge with another board, McCullough said there's no way to know right now.
“Honestly, we keep looking at the ministry and saying 'Do you have a list hidden in a drawer where you already have a plan?'” she said.
“Right now, that's not been part of the conversation. There haven't been boards that have been named about the possibility of coming together.”
Merging with another board, which is basically a distinct community, would be challenging, she said.
“I'm not saying it's not doable, but I think there will be challenges.”
The Sudbury Catholic board has not gone through an amalgamation before, McCullough said. Until the late 1990s, though, the board used to govern local French Catholic schools, but they now have their own board.
Larry Killens, a Rainbow board trustee representing the Manitoulin Island area, is a member of a group called the One School System Network.
The group advocates for the establishment of a single secular school system for each official language, namely English and French public school boards.
If the province is serious about saving money in the education sector, they should consider this option, he said.
By creating one secular school system for each official language, $1 billion would be saved in just one year, Killens said. He said he's disappointed the province isn't looking at doing this.
“But when we,as a group, went and proposed this to the government, they wouldn't even look at it,” Killens said.
“They said 'We don't see any evidence that would support this kind of theory.' Well I can remember the time that the government's standard reply was 'We don't see evidence that smoking causes cancer.'”