|EMSB BRIEF CALLS UPON GOVERNMENT TO WITHDRAW BILL 131 ABOLISHING THE ISLAND SCHOOL COUNCIL|
MONTREAL, NOVEMBER 27, 2002- The English Montreal School Board is calling upon the Quebec government to withdraw Bill 131, which if it becomes law before the end of the year will result in the abolishment of the Montreal Island School Council and the creation of a new administrative body with limited obligations.
In a brief prepared for a hearing on the matter now scheduled for next Tuesday night (9:30 p.m.) in Quebec City, the EMSB is suggesting that a parliamentary commission or similar body be created to improve the operations of the Island School Council. The EMSB administers 76 elementary and secondary schools, and 12 adult and vocational centers on a territory which covers the greater part of the Island of Montreal. It shares this territory with three French school boards: Commission Scolaire de Montréal, Pointe de l’île, and part of Commission Scolaire Marguerite Bourgeois. Despite its size and importance, the EMSB was not accorded the same consultation privileges as its French counterparts by the Minister of Education on the introduction of Draft Bill 131.
The EMSB believes that the assignment of setting school tax rates for the residents of the Island of Montreal should remain in the hands of elected officials responsible to the voters and not handed over to an administrative structure which would meet in private, exempt from public scrutiny, without the obligation to publish its budget and its financial statements. "The plan shows no evidence of the short-term savings resulting from the dissolution of the Island Council and it does not demonstrate long-term savings if and when the collection of taxes becomes the responsibility of the city of Montreal," says EMSB Chairman Dr. John Simms.
According to the draft bill, the new committee will be officially known as the Comité de gestion de la taxe scolaire de l'île de Montréal and be composed of the directors general of the school boards situated in whole or in part on the territory of the Island of Montreal (or their delegate from the executive staff of the boards), and two representatives from the Minstry of Education. The day-to-day management of the activities and resources will be the responsibility of a secretary to be appointed by the committee. According to Bill 131, this new committe will be asked to impose and collect the school taxes on immovables located on the territory of the school boards on the Island of Montreal; to manage the debt currently administered by the Island Council; to undertake borrowing and manage long-term debt; to administer shared services (self-insurance plan, bulk purchasing program, etc.) on behalf of the five member boards; and to make recommendations along with the school boards to the Minister on the distribution of funds designated to assist socio-economically disadvantaged families (Milieux défavorisés).
Within a period of a year, the new committee has the obligation to report to the Minister of Education and to the member school boards on the comparative costs of the various options concerning the collection of the school tax, in particular, the case where the city of Montreal would assume the collection of the school tax. The structure and operation of the new committee, described in the draft bill, presents many concerns for an educational system that purports to be founded on democratic principles.
Dr. Simms points out that the new committee also places the directors general of the school boards in a very difficult position because it is not within their mandate to resolve disagreements between school boards on the tax rate. "This is the task of elected officials representing their electorate," he said. "If administrators are being asked to assume political functions, it will jeopardize the perception of their mandate in other domains. Directors general could be in a serious conflict with their employer boards, when this new committee takes a decision which does not reflect the express wishes of their employer boards, which may be in the form of a board resolution."
The EMSB wishes to know who will assume the additional personnel costs required to release the director general or his delegate so that they may perform their new functions on the new committee. In addition, the savings of $900,000 anticipated by the Minister for the first year of operation of the new committee are not supported by the decrease in salary costs accounted for by the termination of posts and activities. Current delegates of the Island Council will continue to be paid their representation allowances until the date of the next school elections and the 55 employees of the Island Council not being retained by the new committee are entitled to up to 12 months of severance pay.
Furthermore, the EMSB states that the savings forecast in the long run are not consistent with past experience when the collection and distribution of taxes was carried out by the city of Montreal. The only functions really taken away in the transfer from the Island School Council to the new committee are the collection and distribution of taxes which are eventually to be carried out by the city of Montreal or the school boards themselves. "This seems unlikely to save any money and one can only imagine the problems the school boards will have securing appropriate funds if and when taxes are collected by Montreal," he states. "Bill 131 does not allow for the consolidation of the financial statements of the five boards, which has been an important factor in the excellent credit rating of the Island Council. It is most likely that this separation will lead to higher borrowing costs and not savings. Moreover, the current tax collection cycle allows the operating costs of the Island Council to be basically self-financed from the interest generated between tax collection in July and its distribution to the school boards starting in January; almost certainly, Montreal would charge the school boards for the tax collection process."
In promising possible borrowing powers to the school boards on the Island of Montreal, Bill 131 almost guarantees an increase in the interest rates to be paid on bond issues compared to the levels the Island Council pays. "Will school buildings be put up as collateral?" Dr. Simms asks.
Under Bill 131, the Minister of Education gains additional powers regarding the distribution of tax monies collected locally. This leads to a number of questions which are enumerated in the EMSB brief: What guarantee is there that the allocations which found their way to inner city schools under the operation of the School Council of the Island of Montreal will continue to do so under the Minister’s discretion? How will five school boards in this new structure agree on an external auditing of the books under this new structure? What will the frequency of meetings be? The draft bill is very unclear about expectations of the new committee in this regard.
"In a context where the Ministry of Education announces the importance of transparency and accountability, it is inconsistent to hold deliberations and decision-making sessions on public funds in the confines of private meetings closed to the public," Dr. Simms says. "In a context of curriculum reform based on democratic principles, it is contradictory to introduce a draft bill without proper consultation and involvement of the school boards".
The EMSB is not opposed to modifications to the current situation regarding the levying and collection of school taxes if, through consultation, increased efficiency, and mutual support, they generate additional funds for school boards to support teaching and learning activities in the classroom, particularly in the inner city. "Unfortunately, there is no evidence of this intent in the proposed bill," notes Dr. Simms. "In fact, Bill 131 seems to have been developed hastily, with the intent of punitive retribution towards elected officials who were trying to achieve what their communities had indicated was wanted, albeit by challenging certain MEQ orientations through their functions on the Island Council."
"We are prepared to sit down with the other four Island boards and representatives of the Ministry to find reasonable, democratic, equitable, and transparent ways to make the Island Council more pertinent, more efficient, and more effective in the context of the year 2002," says Dr. Simms. "We believe and reaffirm that when all parties act in good faith, productive changes will be put in place following the next School Board general elections."
The EMSB committee which prepared the brief was composed of Dr. Simms, Vice-Chairman Dominic Spiridigliozzi,commissioners James Symianick and Marvin Helfenbaum, Director General Charley E.E. Levy and Deputy Directors General Tony Lacroce and Renzo Orsi.
Michael J. Cohen