Anglophone South rejects budget to protest EA funding shortfall

On the first day of school in Saint John, Sharon Gerrits was told her son Willem would not have an education assistant that day.

Willem has Down syndrome and relies on educational assistants to help him take notes and participate in his Grade 7 class, where he's the only student who needs the extra support.

Gerrits had to stay and help him in the classroom, something she said is not fair to her or her son.

"I went in to help him with that, to negotiate his schedule, learning where the classrooms were, meeting the different teachers," she said. "I think it's ridiculous that a parent should have to go in and play that role for her child."

Submitted by Sharon Gerrits

This week, the Anglophone South district education council voted unanimously to reject its budget to protest against inadequate funding for education assistants. The council said the money from the province fell $1.9 million short of what was required to hire the 60 additional assistants needed in recent years.

Council president Rob Fowler admitted that rejecting the budget is mostly a symbolic gesture — the district has to continue operating and the money has already been allocated. But the council is going to send a letter to the government and hope its complaints are heard.

"We will readdress this next month," he said.

The province provides the district education council with a global budget, and it's up to the council to decide how to allocate each dollar, said Department of Education spokesperson Danielle Elliott.

But council members say the total isn't enough to cover all the district's needs, plus the 60 additional EAs.

The budget they rejected had no deficit, as required, but members believed getting to that goal meant making unsustainable sacrifices in other areas.

Anglophone East is facing the same problem and also rejected its budget.

At the meeting Wednesday, district education council member Larry Boudreau said if all councils rejected their budgets, it would send a message to the Department of Education.

We're seeing a ballooning of needs amongst our students in the system.  - Rob Fowler, DEC president.

He said there are students who haven't been getting the help they need from education assistants.

Another member, Justin Tinker, brought up Anglophone East's problem and how that district is facing the same challenge. Tinker said this means districts are dealing with a systemic problem.

 "I think a message really needs to be sent," he said. "We're being systemically underfunded." 

Rob Fowler, the chair of the Anglophone South district eduction council, said the budget that was rejected was balanced, but "it took a lot to get to that point."

"They move a lot of things around," he said of how the budget was juggled to find money for the EAs. "It's not like it's you found free money somewhere. It's going to cost us in another area somewhere in the system."

Calls for new formula

He said the issue could be solved if the province updated the funding formula. Right now the province funds the district at a certain level, but the demand is increasing.

"We're seeing a ballooning of needs amongst our students in the system," he said. "So we're finding that we're requiring more and more education assistants in the system."

This year, the district required 60 to 62 more EAs than the number being funded, bringing the district total to more than 770.

Denied interview

The council has had a funding shortfall for education assistants for the last two years. Previously approved budgets show the shortfall increased from $1.25 million in 2017 to almost $1.9 million this year.

Fowler said there is also a shortfall in replacement days for staff members who are out for various reasons. 

In response to a request for an interview with someone in the department, Elliott sent a written statement. She said the department works with the district "on a regular basis."

"Over the past two years, we have consistently provided increases to address class composition needs and we continue to work closely with the districts on this file," she said. 

Elliott said that in 2017-18, the department increased the budget related to classroom composition by $1,581,000, which districts used to fund additional EAs. 

Last year, the province put an additional $3 million toward classroom composition, and this year it added $4 million, she said. 

'Robbing Peter to pay Paul'

Gerrits said this week her son Willem came home from Barnhill Memorial School and said "Mom, I hate school."

"I said, 'Why? You love school,' and he said 'Too hard, too hard this year,'" Gerrits said through tears.

She said she believes the school is doing everything it can, but to provide support for her son, the administration is forced to use an EA who is helping someone else.

"They said 'We're robbing Peter to pay Paul,'" she said.

"I also know that every time he has an EA sitting with him that he's taking that away from another student." 

Submitted by Sharon Gerrits

With that knowledge comes guilt, she said.

"I don't want to take that away from them," she said. "But at the same time, I'm supposed to let my son suffer because the government can't … find the money to provide that for him?"

If there's one message Gerrits wants to send to the government, it's "You cannot just put a label on something and say that you've done it."

"You have to put the resources and the meat behind it. You can't just call something [inclusive] and say it's done."