Inflationary pressures not addressed in education budget: Sask Rivers

The Sask Rivers Education Centre/ Daily Herald File Photo

Wednesday’s provincial budget saw a $47.2 million increase in education spending planned for 2022-23, but Saskatchewan Rivers School Division officials worry that won’t do much due to high inflation.

Sask. Rivers education director Robert Bratvold said the education budget is better than previous versions, but still needs improvement since school divisions are dealing with inflation to fixed costs.

Bratvold said that overall the budget was what the division expected, and they were happy with the coverage of a new teacher’s contract. However, without a budget that recognizes fixed cost increases due to inflation as expenses, Bratvold said it will still be a challenge.

“(The budget) is somewhat better than it has been in the last several years but still just falls short of covering our operating and inflationary costs,” he added.

Education spending across government is $3.8 billion in this budget, up more than $47.2 million, or 1.3 per cent, compared to last year.

Through this budget, the Ministry of Education will support pre-K to Grade 12 students, early learners and school and child care staff with $2.9 billion, up nearly $220 million compared to last year.

The province also announced a new $7 million fund that will allow school divisions to hire up to 200 additional, full-time educational assistants to support students and manage increasingly diverse classrooms.

Saskatchewan’s 27 school divisions will receive $1.99 billion in operating funding for the 2022 school year – a record level and an increase of $24.9 million.

“So about 23 of that is spent on teacher salary increases and that’s good that they recognize that. But that leaves six million for everything else,” Bratvold said. “Our share of that is about $325,000 that doesn’t even come close to covering our fixed cost increases for inflation.”

Bratvold said that the division has worked hard to find efficiencies in spending and to focus dollars on priorities the best they can.

“We have not just shaved,” Bratvold said. “We have had to squeeze and restructure and refine many, many things. We do that on a continual basis and at some point there just isn’t a lot more room there and we have been there for the last year or two.”

Education Minister Dustin Duncan told reporters on Wednesday he understood concerns about inflation, but said it wasn’t a big factor in the increase to education costs.

“The things that are affected by inflation are relatively minor,” he told the CBC.

“Our major cost is our teacher salaries and that’s fully funded at two per cent, so that really isn’t affected by inflation.”

The Saskatchewan School Boards Association (SSBA) recognized the small increase in funding for the school system in today’s provincial budget. However, they also emphasized that the increase falls short of covering operating and inflationary costs.

“The operating increase announced in the 2022-23 budget does not cover operating expenses for school divisions,” SSBA president Shawn Davidson said in a press release.

“School boards may have difficult decisions to make, once again.”

Davidson said school divisions will have to find more places to cut spending unless those fixed cost increases are recognized as expenses.

“You don’t have as much money to spend as you have operations and so you have to change the operations. There is not a lot of opportunity to increase revenue elsewhere,” Bratvold said.

The lack of ability to find revenue goes back to changes made in 2008-2009. In 2009, the provincial government took away the ability of the divisions to set mill rates. The balance of school division funding is provided through the province’s General Revenue Fund.

Bratvold said they try to make up that shortfall by applying for specialized grants.

While the funding of salary increases was welcomed, Bratvold said there are a few other concerns. He noted there were no significant supports for mental health and wellbeing in the budget.

“That has been a topic of conversation especially in the last couple years and before that and that didn’t show up in an obvious way in the budget.

He added that was a surprising element and was included in the Interim Education Plan that is in place until the end of 2022-2023.

“We know that students and families, staff have challenges with mental health and wellness, it was particularly exacerbated by COVID and that seems obvious to us, so we will have to do some work to address those needs,” Bratvold said. “It just surprised me a little bit that that wasn’t recognized in any significant way within the provincial budget.”

He noted that he hadn’t looked in detail at the provincial health budget to see if it was addressed there.

“The ones that I am aware of aren’t substantially significant to address the needs that are there,” Bratvold said.

He added that he appreciated the position the province is in.

“It’s not easy to run a budget for an entire province, I recognize that. I look forward to the conversations about how we can adjust our provincial budgeting processes to recognize those costs that we all know school divisions have that increase every year,” Bratvold said.

Prince Albert Catholic School Division director of education Lorel Trumier did not respond to an interview request before deadline.