STF, school board association says education top-ups don’t work

“The top-up funding model has become the norm in Saskatchewan, but it doesn’t take into account the challenges that create for school divisions, teachers and students.”

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Education Minister Dustin Duncan’s announcement of a $40 million top-up in funding for school divisions may have had some seeing big dollar signs on Thursday, but for many in education, the signs were far too small.

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While the announcement fulfilled a promise made a month ago after a rally on the doorstep of the legislature, many say it missed the mark at helping school divisions climb out of deficit situations.

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The injection of funding is conditional, with $20 million tied to enrollment increases and $20 million specifically to support hiring staff into classrooms.

While Chinook School Division director of education Mark Benesh says any money for education is good money, the $40 million falls short of addressing his division’s $3.4 million deficit in 2023-24. Other school divisions in the province, he said, are also running heavy deficits.

“We had an even higher deficit over the past few years and had to reduce $10 million over the last eight years or so just to keep pace,” Benesh said in a telephone interview from his Swift Current office. “We’re always appreciative of any new dollars, but our board is always hopeful that at some point the $3.4 million that we invested in our classrooms and the complexity and diversity that they have would be recognized.”

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Diane Boyko, chair of the Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools board, spoke at Duncan’s announcement in Saskatoon Thursday afternoon at Filevich Ukrainian Bilingual School. She called the funding “long-awaited good news,” and thanked Duncan for “recognizing the need for better funding for education in Saskatchewan.”

But it is clear, she added, that there are more children in the province attending schools. Bishop Filevich Ukrainian Bilingual School itself has seen a huge increase in its student population over the past year due to arrivals from Ukraine. And classroom needs are growing in complexity, she added.

“It is more and more children of increasingly diverse needs who require more comprehensive supports to ensure that when they progress through their school years, they are learning what they should, graduating from high school and making our province a vibrant and prosperous place to live and grow, Boyko said.

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In the lead-up to the province’s 2023-24 budget, tabled on March 22, the Saskatchewan Teacher’s Federation (STF) urged the government to inject at least $400 million more into public education.

STF described the province’s classrooms as being in a “triage” situation and “in crisis” due to cuts in staff and programming. Following the budget, which increased education funding by 2.5 per cent, the Canadian Union of Public Employees said the increase “does not come close to covering inflationary and enrollment increases.”

Following Duncan’s $40 million announcement Thursday, STF said the money was “woefully inadequate” to meet the needs of schools and students in the province.

Saskatchewan Education Minister Dustin Duncan
Saskatchewan Education Minister Dustin Duncan announced top-up funding at Bishop Filevich Ukrainian Bilingual School in Saskatoon, where he was surrounded by dozens of students, many of whom wore embroidered Ukrainian shirts and later sang a song in Ukrainian. Photo by Rob O’Flanagan /Postmedia Network

“Even with the additional funds announced today, our public schools require significantly more funding to address years of abysmal budgets and cuts from this government,” said STF president Samantha Becotte in a press release issued Thursday.

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Becotte said while school divisions do need more money, the province is lauding a band-aid solution.

“It’s becoming a norm where school divisions are essentially begging the ministry for additional funds, and that’s not investing,” Becotte said.

“We’ve heard the premier and the minister say that we’ve been heard, and clearly they are hearing but they’re not listening to the messages that teachers, parents and students are talking about.”

Benesh said the genesis of the Chinook School Division deficit was a $6 million cut to the division’s operating budget in 2016-17.

“Since that time, we’ve been having to reduce,” Benesh said. “And the level of inflationary supports in funding has been well below inflation.”

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Benesh said the operational pressures experienced by Chinook are being experienced by most school divisions in Saskatchewan.

“If it’s not 100 per cent, almost every school division in this upcoming budget year has been facing some budget deficit,” he said. “Everyone in the province is struggling.”

Saskatchewan School Boards Association president Jaimie Smith-Windsor said the $40 million injection will help stave off some cuts that school divisions have been warning are coming, but doesn’t address all of the concerns in the sector.

“I’m not sure that it goes as far as covering all of the inflationary costs and those kinds of things that boards are concerned about, but it will provide some additional relief,” said Smith-Windsor on Wednesday.

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Jamie Smith-Windsor, president of the Saskatchewan School Boards Association
Jaimie Smith-Windsor, president of the Saskatchewan School Boards Association. TROY FLEECE / Regina Leader-Post Photo by TROY FLEECE /Regina Leader-Post

This marks the second year in a row that the Ministry of Education has delivered funding injections after releasing its annual budget after $35.5 million in additional funding was given in 2022.

While seeing more money funneled to education is good, both Smith-Windsor and Becotte said the after-the-fact delivery was undercutting schools.

“The top-up funding model has become the norm in Saskatchewan, but it doesn’t take into account the challenges that create for school divisions, teachers and students,” said Becotte. “June 1 is pretty late to the game,” said Becotte, of the announcement.

Smith-Windsor said the biggest questions now are whether the conditional $20 million earmarked for increasing staff will have more strings attached.

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“It’s certainly a good first step, that we’re starting to address the importance of class complexity in this province,” said Smith-Windsor. “But it’s not just a one-time or short-term issue.”

— A previous version of this article incorrectly named Saskatchewan School Boards Association president Jaimie Smith-Windsor, and had been corrected. The Star-Phoenix and Leader-Post regret this error.

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