Mixed reaction to education funding in 2020 budget

Class in session/Daily Herald File Photo

There was not an entirely positive response to the education portion of the 2020 provincial budget which was released on Monday, June 15 by Minister of Finance Donna Harpauer. The opposition NDP and Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation were displeased with the funding amounts. The Saskatchewan School Boards’ Association (SSBA) also wanted to see more, but was more diplomatic

The 2020-21 Budget provides $2.6 billion for the Ministry of Education, an increase of $123.3 million or five per cent, to support Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 12 classrooms, early learning and child care, libraries and literacy.

The province’s 27 school divisions will receive $1.94 billion in school operating funding for the 2020-21 school year, an increase of $42.1 million over last year’s $1.9 billion budget. This increase provides school divisions with funding for enrolment growth and inflation. An increase related to the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement is included.

“I am proud of how our education system has responded to support our students learning from home during these unprecedented times,” Deputy Premier and Education Minister Gordon Wyant said in a release.

“This budget addresses the growth in our schools while helping to stimulate our province’s recovery with 10 new major school projects. This funding will not only support our students and teachers as they return to the classrooms this fall – it will also plan for the future of education by making a significant investment in new schools.”

There was no funding specific to COVID-19 to support increased staffing levels or the need for resources such as PPE or cleaning supplies.

Instead, Harpauer pointed to a $200 million contingency the province has for any new COVID-19-related costs.

“Should there be a solid, defendable case of why classrooms need more funding, particularly COVID-related, that is what the contingency would be there for,” she said.

During last week’s announcement that schools would open in September Wyant explained that if school divisions need funding for a COVID-19 response will be a conversation to be had with divisions.

The NDP noted prior history with their response on education funding.

“When faced with a smaller economic hit, the government doubled the PST, including adding it to construction, slowing down an already struggling economy and contributing to the pre-COVID-19 recession. They cut health care services for seniors, they cut education from early childhood all the way through to post-secondary education. K-12 education still hasn’t caught up to per-student funding from before that time,” opposition leader Ryan Meili said in media availability.

The budget provides previously-announced capital funding to build seven new schools and renovate three existing schools.

There is no funding for promised new French language schools in this year’s budget. Wyant said a proposal to turn the former Rivier Academy into a new school and community centre would be subject to a third-party study. Proponents of the project had hoped for an announcement this fiscal year.

Harpauer, when asked why it wasn’t included, referred the question to the Ministry of Education.

In addition to the capital funding included in the 2020-21 Budget, the Government announced a two-year capital plan as part of the plans to rebound from the huge economic hit of the COVID -19 pandemic. Over the two years, education infrastructure will see $136.3 million, including, $37.3 million in 2020-21. That $37.3 million figure is made up of $20.4 million for new major capital projects; and  $16.9 million for renewal maintenance projects around the province, including projects that will reduce school operating costs through energy efficiency.

The province is also offering an increase of $1.3 million in operating funding that will be provided to qualified independent schools and historical high schools for the 2020-21 school year, for a total of $11.8 million. This will provide for increased enrolments and increase of student funding to align historical high schools with associate schools.

Community-based organizations, including child care centres, will receive an increase of $2.4 million more than the 2019-20 Budget. Funding for child care and early learning in the 2020-21 Budget is $98 million. This includes an increase of $350,000 in provincial funding for specialized Prekindergarten.

SSBA recognizes challenges offered by pandemic

In release on Monday the SSBA explained that recognizes that the provincial government has committed to supporting schools financially, considering the pandemic context and challenges to fiscal capacity, with today’s 2020-21 budget announcement.

“We will continue working closely with government and all of our sector partners to ensure safety during the pandemic and supports for the education system going forward,” said SSBA President Dr. Shawn Davidson.

“The SSBA is appreciative of the commitment to education represented in the operating and capital funding re-iterated in today’s budget announcement.”

Davidson said the budget provides some assurance to school boards about their operations, which remain in a state of pandemic response, and removes an element of uncertainty going forward.

“The government has taken a step toward addressing calls for predictability, with an allocation of operating funding that reflects pressures of enrolment and inflation,” he said.

“Capital investment is also significant. Operating funding levels for 2020-21 will enable boards to continue doing what they need to do at a base level, though fall short of the significant investment we hoped for to help address some of the challenges in classrooms.”

The full effects of the budget will be better understood going forward as pandemic response and planning for the fall continues, Davidson noted.

STF thinks not enough in budget for existing resources

Despite an increase in education funding confirmed today, the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation (STF) says Saskatchewan’s 2020-21 budget does not provide enough funding to maintain existing resources in a release on Monday afternoon.

“Without accounting for increased costs related to COVID-19, we are already hearing of several school divisions deliberating where to reduce costs to address shortfalls,” said Patrick Maze, President of the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation.

A lengthy labour dispute resolved earlier this year centred, in part, on concerns surrounding class size and composition. Teachers said they were already lacking resources to address class sizes and increasing complexities across the province. Some school divisions reportedly dealt with a shrinking education budget by reducing funds spent on caretakers.

“In a time when enhanced cleaning will be necessary to keep students and staff healthy, no division should be in the position of having to consider cutting caretaker resources.”

The STF says the challenges created by lack of resources, including complex classes did not disappear with the move to remote learning.

“Teachers have done a remarkable job shifting to emergency remote learning, but without enough of the right resources, students will pay the price,” said Maze.

“Emergency remote learning has only made the inequities more evident. Teachers need to be supported and students need access to resources in order to succeed.”

The Federation expects funding to be attached to the education guidelines government issues so the health of students and staff is protected through appropriate cleaning, social distancing and other precautions without further reducing educational resources for students.

-With files from Peter Lozinski and Jayda Noyes, Prince Albert Daily Herald