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By Sid Ryan
This past Monday, voters in Ontario sent a strong message to local politicians that they are in no mood to pander to pro-“urban sprawl” councillors or pro-cuts school trustees. Across the province voters turfed from office mayors, councillors and school trustees perceived to be out of step with the best interest of community-minded voters.
Parents across Ontario voted against school trustees who support cutting school programs, educational assistants, custodial and maintenance employees and closing schools. They teamed up with community organizations and unions to defend quality public education.
One would think that in an era of ever-decreasing interest in our electoral processes that this grass roots involvement would be welcomed and encouraged by progressive-minded people. However, in Toronto, disgruntled school trustee Patrick Rutledge ran a smear campaign against trustees who were supported by the grassroots Campaign for Public Education (CPE), a coalition of parents, students, seniors, community organizations and unions.
Rutledge was assisted by Minister of Education Kathleen Wynn when she granted the tiny group a meeting on short notice to discuss their support for Wynn’s slashing and cutting of support services in the school system. I’m sure it’s just coincidental that the employees who will be losing their jobs — if Wynn gets her way — have tried for the past six months to meet with the Ministry of Education to no avail.
Despite this smear campaign, voters elected 11 trustees out of a board of 22, trustees who will not support McGuinty’s agenda of cuts and closures in schools.
The problems facing school boards are not unique to Toronto. A recent survey of school boards finances found that at least 34 boards have dipped into reserve funding in order to balance the books in 2006. At least eight school boards have completely depleted their reserve funds. There is a crisis brewing in our public school system and so far McGuinty’s Liberals are oblivious to the strength of this oncoming hurricane.
But the storm clouds are not confined to the school board sector. Municipal candidates also received an earful from voters who are fed up with politicians neglecting quality of life concerns in our communities. At issue is the unchecked growth in urban sprawl and all its associated problems including environmental and tax implications.
Liberal-friendly candidates did not fare very well in municipal elections. Labour-supported mayors won in 15 municipalities across the province. McGuinty has lost some key allies in voter-sensitive communities such as Sudbury, where former NDP MP John Rodriguez took the mayor’s job. In London, a key must-win area for McGuinty, the labour-supported incumbent Anne Marie DeCicco-Best trounced former Liberal MP Joe Fontana for the mayor’s job. And the bleeding does not stop there. Liberal-friendly mayors in Hamilton and Ottawa were hammered by voters.
Even in cities like Oshawa, where the Liberals did not hold the mayor’s seat, Liberal supporters took a beating. Oshawa Mayor John Gray tarnished his own easy victory by supporting two councillors who openly supported the Liberals in the last federal election. Both of his choices were severely hammered by the voters and Gray now faces stiff opposition on council.
All of this is to say that the outcome of the next provincial election is up for grabs. The Liberals have some choices to make in the coming months. Will they fix the school funding formula or suffer the wrath of parents who will not tolerate cuts to their children’s education? Will they listen to ever-increasing “green voters” who are demanding better quality of life in their communities by restricting urban sprawl and promoting clean air initiatives?
My guess is no. The Liberals are too cocksure and arrogant to listen. The stage is set for a humdinger of a provincial election and my bet is that we will end up with a minority government. Sitting on the government benches will be John Tory and Howard Hampton.