On November 14, Seine River School Division trustees voted to restore full funding to the Kids at Play (KAP) program as well as bussing for students living within .8 and 1.6 kilometres of their schools.
Letters sent to affected parents earlier this month indicated the division’s intention to develop a fee-for-service model beginning in January. This would have resulted in a monthly cost of $190 per child in KAP and an additional $200 for each student’s transportation for the final six months of the year.
Both programs have been free to parents in the division for many years.
The new fees would have been among many austerity measures introduced by the division since a $1.3-million deficit was uncovered in July.
The division’s letters resulted in an outpouring of objection from parents with kids in these programs, all concerned about the prohibitive costs, the extremely short notice, and the lack of parental feedback.
Three delegations and around 60 parents showed up to the November 15 meeting. Christine Hollyoake and Chad Kessler formed one of the delegation teams, representing the interests of St. Adolphe’s affected parents.
Hollyoake Presents to the Board
Hollyoake says that she felt respected and heard by the board as she made her presentation. Based on trustee responses, she’s confident that they were truly unaware of the full ramifications of what their fee-for-service model would mean to local families.
“Their anticipated revenue for KAP assumed 100 percent participation, whereas, with transportation, they only anticipated 80 percent of kids buying into that,” says Hollyoake.
This became clear in a slide presentation by the board which indicated the potential for a $500,000 cost recapture in the new year between the combined programs. The bulk of the revenue, $400,000, was expected to result from KAP enrolment.
Based on what Hollyoake had been hearing from other parents, though, the buy-in for both programs would likely have been much lower—not for lack of support and appreciation for the programs, but rather a response to facing yet one more challenging cost in already tough economic times.
When presented with this info, Hollyoake says that some board members were inclined to consider a relaxed approach to collecting fees, to make it more financially feasible for families.
Others recognized that such an approach would not improve their revenue stream as quickly as was needed.
Another thing the administration seems to have failed to consider, she says, is the extra cost of transportation for those kids who would no longer be enrolled in the KAP program in January. Currently, Kindergarten and the KAP students only require transportation for the beginning and end of day.
“Administration didn’t have the [information] on what transportation costs would be to bus kids home midday and pickup midday,” says Hollyoake. “And none of those costs were factored into the cost-saving measures. So if you only have 70 percent buy-in, then you only have 70 percent of $400,000, plus you now have the additional cost of transportation to get the 30 percent home midday.”
Additionally, she says, the fees had the potential to create an economic divide between children of parents who could afford the services and those who couldn’t.
Hollyoake still has questions about how fee-for-service can be justified when the division receives at least some funding from the province to run these programs.
In the end, however, six of the nine trustees voted in favour of eliminating the fees at this time, including board chair Wendy Bloomfield.
“This is a short-term victory and I’m very thankful for this victory,” Hollyoake says. “The flip side to that is… they now need to find $500,000 somewhere else. I really want everybody to get what they need for their children, but I don’t know how you do that in the situation that we’re in.”
The Board Presents Their Austerity Measures
At the meeting, the board presented a relatively candid report on the division’s fire financial outlook. When the first budget was created in spring, the board was led to believe that a $3.1-million surplus would be achieved by the end of the 2023–24 school year. With the introduction of a new secretary treasurer in July, and following a budget review, it was determined that a $1.3 deficit is more realistic.
When you add the new contracted agreements with EAs and other groups, the board estimates a total shortfall of $5.3 million by the end of this coming school year.
As per their legal requirements, the SRSD admin have been in communication with the province. Their responsibility is to create a new budget which incorporates a plan to eliminate the deficit. This plan will need to be approved by the Minister of Education.
Due to the sizeable nature of the expected shortfall, the board has concluded that a multi-year plan will be needed to turn things around. A hiring freeze has since been initiated. Non-essential expenditures are also on hold.
The SRSD board and admin are also considering the layoff of all temporary contract staff. This could affect 25 teachers, 17 EAs, and a number of other support people. This measure has the potential to save the division approximately $1.4 million.
“A threshold was set for each school in consultation with the principal for how many educational assistant vacancies the school can manage and still meet the programming needs of the students with individualized education plans,” read a visual presentation from the board.
Also under consideration is the replacement of the KAP instructor with someone already working internally. The role of secretaries and librarians may be paused or reduced where possible and expectations may be lowered for operational staff to help reduce hours.
According to the presentation, another $3 million in cost savings could be realized by cutting a variety of programs and services as well as educational funding for staff members.
Parents Still Concerned
According to a substitute EA working exclusively in the SRSD, the situation has already been difficult in the division over the past couple of months. She wonders how much worse they could get in the face of these austerity measures.
On request for anonymity, we’ll call her Jane.
For eight years, Jane has supplemented her family income by working as a substitute EA. This fall, she noticed a significant drop off in calls for her assistance in schools across the division.
Prior to the board’s cutbacks, she says, she received three calls in one week, which is fairly typical. In the weeks that followed, she hasn’t received a single call and her one prebooked workday has been cancelled.
“There are huge concerns for the most vulnerable students in the division not getting what they need each day,” says Jane. “If an EA is away and there is no coverage for a certain student, then EAs will be moved around to cover the student with the highest needs. But that means that students with lesser needs will often lose their help. This could mean a student who still requires a full-time EA but is not one to run away or cause huge distraction could constantly be losing their one-on-one support. It also means that a higher burden is put on the classroom teacher in an already busy environment.”
She worries that she and other substitute EAs will soon lose all of their hours and need to seek employment elsewhere.
Jane is also a parent to a child with special needs. She understands the kinds of hoops parents have to jump through just to get EA assistance for their child in the first place. These budget cuts won’t make that task any easier.
Another mom, Allyn Bishop, is in a similar situation. Her son, who attends Kindergarten in La Salle, suffers from global delay. At five years old, he’s more like three years old developmentally. He has epilepsy, has to be tube-fed, and experiences very poor balance.
Ideally, she says, he should have an EA with him all day, but he only has extra help during class time in Kindergarten and KAP.
“He has to eat lunch in a separate room with other kids who require extra help instead of being with his classmates,” says Bishop. “He doesn’t get to go play on the structure or the swings with the other kids at recess because there isn’t enough help, so he just stands there. He didn’t get to participate in the Terry Fox events because of staffing. I’m sure there is much more [that happens] that I don’t get to see.”
Bishop fears that the separation between her son and the other children will only grow as hiring freezes and staffing cuts are rolled out. Worse still, he may not be able to attend school at all.
“He would not be able to go to school without an EA,” she says. “He needs one, both physically and mentally. My biggest fear is him being left out on both learning and play, therefore not being able to learn and develop to his full potential.”
Brenda Sawatzky, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Niverville Citizen