Saskatchewan Rivers not surprised by education budget

Saskatchewan Rivers School Board director of education Robert Bratvold answers a question at the 2016 AGM.

Little changed for the Saskatchewan Rivers School division when Finance Minister Donna Harpauer rose in the legislature Monday to deliver the final 2020-21 budget.

The province introduced its full budget Monday after releasing just the spending estimates in March. The funding for Sask. Rivers stayed the same, and the province fully-funded the new teacher’s salary. However, there was nothing in the budget to address a possible second wave of COVID-19 in schools, or for physical distancing and cleaning measures.

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.

Saskatchewan Rivers director of education Robert Bratvold was not surprised funding did not change from the March announcement.

“The education budget was in there and so no substantial changes to that which was good. I am thankful, as they said they would, they have provided funding for the new teacher’s agreement in the release so that is a positive thing. I recognize that there increase in education budget is a good thing. I do know that a substantial part of that is capital so that is a reality you have to build new schools you have to have a handle on things,” he said.

“No surprises, good stability, it is good to know that even despite the challenges that even the ministry or the government is placing a priority on education and that is an investment in the future.”

Sask. Rivers is not on the capital list but understands that enrolment doesn’t meet criteria, despite the age of buildings within the division. The budget provides previously-announced capital funding to build seven new schools and renovate three existing schools.

One frustration from the education sector is that a large percentage of funds announced in the provincial budget funds capital improvements and does not go to day-to-day operations. The only operational funding in this year’s budget is to cover the cost of the teachers’ wage increase, cover the cost of inflation and account for enrolment growth. Not all divisions have enrolment growth.

Of the $123.3 million increase to the education budget, only $42.1 million is going to cover operations.

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

In the COVID-19 update on Tuesday Premier Scott Moe was asked about providing more funding for COVID-19 response. Moe explained that the budget provides $80 million to school divisions and there have seen savings.

“We’re in active conversations with them as to why those savings are and we’re working with our school divisions and our education sector as a whole on what the parameters is and how do we send our children back to school” Moe said.

The conversations with divisions included parameters, costs and possible changes that could occur come September.

“It is our intent that we will be able to … and provide every opportunity for our students to return to school in full attendance in some fashion this fall. we have to make sure we have the parameters in place to make sure that our students are attending school safely,” Moe said,

Yesterday Finance Minister Donna Harpauer pointed to a $200 million contingency the province has for any new COVID-19-related costs across all sectors.

“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.

Bratvold, however sees that this contingency could arrive and cost the bottom line.

“I think there may be additional costs to school divisions and the Ministry will have in terms of communication, in terms of protective equipment, in terms of additional staffing costs and there is no plan for that. So that is good to know but it would be nice to know if there were some conditions on it.”

The school division would like to see the matter addressed in advance of September.

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.

Bratvold observed that the new funding doesn’t make up for education funding challenges of the recent past.

“They are recognizing that but I think that it will take some more recognition of that before you replace the money that has been cut over the last three or four years,” Bratvold said.

Prince Albert Catholic School Division director of education Lorel Trumier was not available for comment as of press time.

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