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By Sid Ryan


When it comes to acknowledging the contribution school custodians, secretaries, technicians and educational assistants (EAs) make in our schools, Premier Dalton McGuinty seems terminally afflicted with foot-in-mouth syndrome.


With his most recent gaff, McGuinty managed to slight nearly 80,000 school support staff with just a few thoughtless words: “When was the last time we had a teachers’ strike in Ontario? I don’t believe we’ve had a single one.”


In fact, there has been plenty of discord and several big strikes — all of them by secretaries, custodians, EAs and technicians.


While the Liberals have worked to avoid labour disputes with teachers by increasing funding to address their concerns and improve their working conditions, they’ve done nothing when it comes to support services. Schools still don’t have enough custodians to keep them clean, enough secretaries to affectively administrate or enough educational assistants to provide special needs students with the support they need.


When it comes to school support workers, this government’s attitude is not much different from their predecessor Tories — secretaries, tradespeople, librarians, custodians and EAs are not a priority, and by extension, neither are clean, well-maintained schools, good administration and quality special education. 


The Premier’s message is clear: if you’re not a teacher in Ontario, you don’t matter a fig to the McGuinty Liberals.


In the March provincial budget, the Liberals put the message into practice. Except for a few dollars, none of the $781 million in funding announced for education went to address deficiencies in support service budget lines. As one school custodian told me: “What gall.” Because there hasn’t been labour peace in our schools.


We have had several support workers’ strikes recently and another one is brewing at the Dufferin-Peel Catholic board. These strikes are rooted in problems with provincial education funding, problems that fuel cuts to support services and staff, and eventually land on school board bargaining tables across Ontario.


Independent research shows a provincial funding shortfall in school facility operations of $375 million each year. Because school boards don’t get enough funding from the province, they cut support staff. With fewer custodial and trades staff to clean and do needed repairs, some schools have been infested with vermin and black mold. It’s the students who suffer from poorer quality school environments that are breeding grounds for viruses.


Last May, more than 1,100 members of my union — EAs with the Thames Valley school board — were on strike for three weeks to gain additional classroom time with special needs students.


More recently, a strike by 2,100 Durham public board staff ended just a few weeks ago. It would have been hard for McGuinty to miss, since busloads of strikers took their issues directly to the steps of Queen’s Park. 


The issues in the Durham board labour dispute included inadequate staffing levels and heavy workloads —symptoms of the flawed funding formula. And we are now seeing a replay of the same issues in Dufferin-Peel, where 700 custodians and trades staff have voted 95 per cent in favour of strike action. The added whammy here is that the McGuinty government imposed a supervisor on that board when trustees refused to make more cuts to balance the budget.


I have to wonder what McGuinty’s education minister Kathleen Wynne is thinking when it comes to addressing funding flaws that affect school support staff with the clock ticking to a provincial election and the potential for more support workers’ strikes. To give her credit, she was prepared to get an earful speaking today at a key meeting of CUPE school board leaders in Niagara Falls.


The questions is, will Wynne and the rest of the Liberal government take the necessary action to fix the major flaws in education funding well before October’s election?


If they fail to do that, they might as well tell Liberal candidates on the campaign trail that, when it comes to commenting on education funding, they should follow the Premier’s lead and open mouth, insert foot.