Education minister hoping to build new relationships

Saskatchewan Education Minister Gord Wyant smiles during the 2018 Saskatchewan Party Leadership Convention. Herald file photo.

Education Minister Gord Wyant says the government is working on building new relationships with the province’s school divisions and locally-elected school boards.

Wyant, who also serves as deputy premier, was in Prince Albert Monday to meet with Mayor Greg Dionne and the public, Catholic and French school divisions as he tours the province.

“One of the things that we’ve been spending a lot of time talking about is creating a new dialogue in the education sector, talking to our partners to make sure that what we’re doing is supporting kids in the classroom,” Wyant said during a sit-down interview with the Daily Herald.

“Part of the main message I want to take to school divisions, teachers and parents is that we want to create this new relationship, because the more information we get from local decision makers, from people who are affected by the policies we put in place in the classrooms, I think the better we are in terms of making decisions within the Ministry of Education. We’re having these kinds of broad conversations and talking about the partnerships that we need to build and that we need to enhance.”

Wyant’s tour comes during a time where the province is hoping to mend fences after cutting millions from the education budget, and then dictating how that money could be spent by school divisions. After a public outcry, the Saskatchewan Party backed off both those policies, restoring some of the cut funding and giving more power back to locally elected school boards.

“We’ve changed a few things,” Wyant said. “We’ve removed the conditionality with regard to some of our funding.”

The government also restored $30 million of education funding, less than was originally cut.

“Certainly it’s not the cut in the budget last year,” Wyant said. “School divisions though did a lot of work finding efficiencies within their operations. I think that’s encouraging and I think the taxpayers of this province expect school divisions and local government across the province to look for efficiencies, to make sure they’re being efficient and effective in the delivery of their services.”

He went on to say his ministry is having an “ongoing conversation” about further supports for schools.

Prince Albert Catholic School Division (PACSD) director of education Laurel Trumier was appreciative of Wyant’s visit.

“This minister was ready to meet with us and is well-informed of our achievements,” she said.

“We were very happy to share all of our successes. We’re outperforming the provincial averages in several categories so we’re very pleased about that and he was well. What we did is we certainly complimented this government on the restorative action that they took to restore funding. He heard our concerns, he heard our challenges, but he also knew that we were doing a great job within our school division.”

Robert Bratvold, director of education for the Saskatchewan Rivers School Division was out of the office and vacation when the Herald reached out for comment.

Wyant addressed two emerging issues that impact schools in the Prince Albert area and across the province.

One is the large number of young students coming through the system. While 20 per cent of the area’s population is below 15 years of age, the largest single age group, according to the 2016 census, is the 5-9 age group, with the 0-4 age group close behind. The province as a whole also has large numbers of children in the 0-9 age range.

“We’re spending a lot of time talking about early years, pre-k, kindergarten and Grade 1-3,” Wyant said.

“Conversations I like to have with school division and with my ministry officials is how we can better support early years learning, and how we can better support literacy and numeracy in the early years. We know that when kids get to Grade 3, if they’re not at a Grade 3 reading level, we have a pretty good predictor of where they’re going to end up. You’ll be hearing more from our government on that through the ministry over the next little while.”

That early age group is also something PACSD is focusing on.

“We’ve been monitoring the Sask. Trends and we are aware that early years is going to be an area of need not only for our region but also for the province,” Trumier said.

“This ministry and minister understand the importance of the early years and what it can mean. In fact, we’re going to have an early years summit in Saskatoon to look at effective ways to support that influx of young student coming into our schools and how we can support them in their learning.”

Wyant also addressed another potential strain on the province’s schools, the discrepancy between provincial and federal funding for students. Indigenous students are funded by the federal government, and not the province, despite attending the same schools in communities such as Prince Albert. Historically, the funding levels from the federal government in terms of K-12 education haven’t been as high as provincial funding in the same school systems, which can create a burden on the provincial system and the schools themselves. School divisions receive funding from both levels of government based on enrolment numbers, which helps pay for things like teacher salaries. The gap is something the federal government has vowed to fix, and Wyant said he’s been working closely with his federal counterparts.

“I met with the federal minister about three weeks ago to talk about resolving the funding gap between provincially-funded students and federally-funded students,” Wyant said.

“They’ve been very receptive to having that conversation How that works in terms of rolling out that funding will be something we need to work out, but we’re expecting the federal government is going to be true to their promise in terms of enhancing funding for First Nations kids. We can provide the programming with that funding and that’s going to naturally lead to increased graduation rates among First nations kids, which is critically important for the future of our province, our economy and our society.”

Wyant said he plans to be in Ottawa in August to continue that conversation with Jane Phillpot, Minister of Indigenous Services.

Closing that gap is also something Trumier would like to see.

“I think anyone would agree that we definitely want to have parity between both the federal and provincial system,” she said.

“We understand the complexities of that, but it’s always a good sign when it’s moving in that direction. After all, it’s for what’s in the best interest of students.”