Montreal’s Public School Crisis

École Baril in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, one of the CSDM's many condemned schools.
École Baril in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, one of the CSDM’s many condemned schools.

This is really disturbing.

A recent Radio-Canada report has shed some light on what might be the greatest case of long-term negligence in our province’s history of neglecting civic infrastructure.

82 public schools administered by the Commission Scolaire de Montréal (CSDM) are in advanced states of decay and degeneration, such that repairs at this time would indeed cost more than simply demolishing the schools outright and building anew.

Of the 226 schools run by the CSDM, another 134 are listed as in a ‘worrisome’ state while only 10 are deemed to have met minimum standards for air quality and general upkeep.

These schools suffer from a wide variety of problems. Mould contamination is the major issue as long-term exposure to mould can cause a host of medical problems. Then there’s asbestos which was used in a lot of public construction as a fire retardant back in the 1950s and 1960s. If I recall correctly there was a big push several years ago to try and clean it all up, but given this province’s predilection for half-assing infrastructure repair, who knows how well that job was done or how effective it was. Then there’s a host of other problems – defective masonry, busted pipes, leaking roofs etc. etc.

The official line is that ‘previous governments’ didn’t set aside enough money for school maintenance and that’s why they’re in as a poor shape as they currently are. This is a convenient enough argument since it’s what we already believe to have caused all the problems related to our bridges and highway overpasses etc. It’s not entirely true, but who cares if it works politically.

Besides which, assigning blame won’t fix the more immediate problem.

The head of the CSDM has indicated that, in addition to the $50 million annual maintenance budget, they got $43 million more this past year specifically to improve air quality in sixteen schools, but also stated that this amount isn’t sufficient and that she’ll ask the current government to double the CSDM’s maintenance budget to $100 million annually. The CSDM apparently has a maintenance budget deficit of approximately $1.5 billion.

Consider that the cost of building an arguably undersized school in Nun’s Island has been pegged at $10.5 million – building 82 additional schools (or however many more is required to handle a growing student population) could easily cost somewhere in the area of a billion dollars.

Now where exactly is that money going to come from?

As a society we feel ourselves over-taxed as is, and we seem to be getting less and less value for our tax dollars, as graft, corruption and broad inefficiencies have handicapped government’s ability to maintain an all too often purposely vague minimum standard for diverse services. Over a century ago populist reform movements established public education as a means towards social improvement. Over time, public education evolved to remove social and class barriers by establishing a more level playing field wherein the general population gained access to a quality education that could in turn provide access to good employment. But more recently political movements have developed that urge governments to cut taxes, often blindly, and this in turn has lead to less money to support the public education system.

Today, some ask whether it’s worth the cost at all, since it seems to be so problematic.

Of course, it’s illogical to expect a broad civic initiative to thrive if it’s poorly financed and ill-maintained from the outset.

The more we cut spending on education, healthcare, social services etc, the more they all suffer.

And remember, the CSDM is the school board with the highest drop out rate on-island. Is it any wonder? Their schools are in piss-poor shape, the board is obviously underfunded and the schools are over-crowded. In some cases, children can’t attend the schools purposely built to serve their own neighbourhood, and instead have to be bussed across town. And all this adds up to a far greater strain on what limited financial resources we have, delivering less and less because we’re paying for poor management, lack of vision, and a culture of civic infrastructural and institutional defunding, popularized by so-called ‘fiscal conservatives’.

Poorer schools and higher drop-out rates in turn means more crime, less social cohesion and a potentially larger permanent underclass of marginally employed people living on the fringes of society.

In other words – everybody loses.

But as we all know it isn’t exactly politically expedient to demand higher taxation, and the PQ sure as shit isn’t about to propose raising taxes, even if it were for something as noble (and you’d think politically worthwhile) as building a hundred new schools in the Montreal region alone.

Perhaps we could partially solve the growing public education crisis in Montreal by seeking to streamline operations and find some ways of making public education a bit more efficient.

For example, the last time I counted there are seven school boards operating on the island of Montreal and in Laval. Seven. Seven school boards serving a combined population of roughly 2.5 million people.

New York City has a single Department of Education for its 1.1 million students.

Why on Earth do we need seven separate school boards for a student population of less than 300,000 in our city?

I understand where it comes from – Montreal’s public schools were once divided along religious and linguistic lines. Today they’re divided along linguistic and somewhat arbitrary geographic lines. French schools are filled to the brim while English schools close due to lack of students. And no one proposes the space gets shared because the respective boards and their unions are all twisted up in provincial politics.

And as always it’s the children and the people who suffer.

It’s insane that an English school be closed in a neighbourhood where the French school is over-crowded.

The obvious local solution to our growing public education crisis is that the city be granted a degree of control in the matter. It would be advantageous to operate a single local school board simply because it would allow a complete and thorough rationalization of space usage, leading in turn to a better distribution of students generally speaking throughout the island. Moreover, it would permit either a redistribution of linguistic education services to adjust to demographic changes in the last fifty years, or the possibility of integrating French and English language services into a single school should a situation warrant such a development.

Some hardcore Québec nationalists have in the past argued against integration of French and English services into a single building out of fear that ‘English would rule on the playground’ and thus the primacy of the French language would be threatened. I can tell you that’s bunk. Before the changeover to linguistic school boards my anglo-protestant high school rented space on its first floor to a franco-catholic primary school. We were kept separate and that was that – the only interaction was an inter-board ‘big brother/big sister’ type program wherein high school students would practice their French and help tutor the elementary kids downstairs. Hardly assimilation.

Not only that, but streamlining janitorial, food and landscaping services, in addition to book and supply orders, would definitely save us a considerable sum of money. There’s no need for this to be worked out by so many different school boards operating in and immediately around a single city. It’s wasteful, moronic.

Consider this as well – a single board could provide for a larger unified pension plan. We should look upon the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan as our inspiration and seek to get all local teachers into the same retirement pool. The more contributors to a single pool, the stronger the pool gets.

The current system seems to be hopelessly outdated, the residue of an era in which Two Solitudes was a social convention. Are we not more evolved today? The status quo handicaps us, and strength comes through unity.

By maintaining a needlessly divisive system as we currently have it, all the pieces are doomed to fail. We should have learned this lesson long ago – segregation in public schooling doesn’t work.

De-segregating Montreal’s public schools may be the only way to prevent major service disruptions at the CSDM.

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