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Education still top priority despite deficit

MARISSA NELSON, Free Press Education Reporter   2004-01-14 03:49:37  

Premier Dalton McGuinty insisted in London yesterday education is still a top priority, despite a crippling deficit. McGuinty told The London Free Press editorial board the province will balance the budget in a "sustainable way" but make improvements in key areas, like education.

But, he warned, the education system will undergo the same scrutiny other departments must in a search for cost savings.

"We're not going to pretend there's not a $5.6-billion deficit," McGuinty said. "My priorities haven't changed and what I'm calling upon the teachers to do -- and the nurses and all Ontarians for that matter -- is to offer their very best advice with respect to what we are doing now we should stop doing so that we can invest in our priorities."

Efficiencies, a word McGuinty used yesterday, sends shivers down the spines of educators, who have faced drastic funding cuts.

"We've heard that buzz-word before," said Bill Bryce, Thames Valley District school board director.

"I would be surprised if there were areas they would identify as ones where greater efficiencies could be achieved because the previous government was very clear and strong on reducing expenditures."

Bryce, who runs the province's fourth-largest board, said one only has to look at the number of trustees in this region -- cut from 60 to 12 -- to see how many efficiencies have already been found. But the promise education will still take a front-row seat buoyed Bryce.

"On one hand, we're all wondering what action the government will take to meet the $5.6-billion deficit. On the other hand, they've continued to speak very positively about education, about learning, about teachers and about education support staff."

The province imposed a moratorium on school closings late last year so the government can redo a funding formula McGuinty said doesn't represent students' best interests. But that doesn't mean all schools are safe.

"Schools will open and close in the natural order of things and I've never pretended otherwise. But what we want to do is make sure we strike a better balance that isn't there at the present time," he said.

"The present funding formula is too rigid . . . I'm investing more money in education. There's no doubt about it. One of the uses of that money will be to ensure that school boards have more flexibility when it comes to keeping schools open."

McGuinty said if school boards close a school on his watch, he wants the decision based on quality of education, not economics. Pointing to the $112 million pumped into schools last year to help struggling students, McGuinty said it was "a very important symbol of my ongoing commitment to public education."

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