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Review panel must weigh costs as well a cost-savings

Submitted by Sherry Bockus Editor’s note: What follows is an edited version of a presentation Sherry Bockus made to the Educational Governance Review Panel.

Submitted by Sherry Bockus

Editor’s note: What follows is an edited version of a presentation Sherry Bockus made to the Educational Governance Review Panel.

Thank you for the opportunity to add my thoughts to the discussion regarding the proposed reorganization of the school division boundaries.

As a panel, and as cabinet members, you are tasked with gathering the facts and determining the truth/evidence in the information you are provided. We know it is a difficult position you have in trying to represent all of the constituents of the province who have diverse opinions regarding what is best for the students of Saskatchewan.

You may be considering all the things my friends, colleagues and I have been talking about lately, but maybe not, so as part of that true “open debate” could you add these thoughts to your discussion? I am a speech-language pathologist and work with students on a daily basis. My role ties directly to social and academic success in schools.

It is not clear to the public exactly why changes are being initiated at this time.

The timing appears to be associated with the recent budget deficits. If that is so, what exactly would the cost savings be? The expense of amalgamating, to most of us, cancels out any cost benefits. Are you trying to eliminate the higher paid employees at the senior management level, redundancies in staff, positions that have no measured outcomes or out-of-scope positions? Could you share with the public those discussions? What are the savings? What are the costs? Our education system must have financial parameters, of course, but huge decisions such as governance should not be made for financial reasons, there’s far too much at stake.

It seems the timeline to gather, review and debate all the relevant data collected is extremely limited and a decision regarding the best division boundaries may not be possible in the time frame you have allotted. True democracy values freedom of speech and opinions and although it may not always be efficient, I and many of my colleagues don’t want you to give up that principle for the sake of making a quick financial decision. I trust, as you’re sitting at the table, you insist on the time to review all the information carefully.

Savings in health care and education of course are the most obvious spots to look at cutting services, however, because we are not privy to the government’s thoughts on revenues, then have you considered establishing charitable organizations/foundations in education as the government has had to do in the past with health care to assist in shoring up the revenues for capital expenditures? What about going back to a system that would allow mill rate hikes when faced with situations like this? Have you considered an overall PST increase? I lived in South Carolina for a period of time and revenues from gambling at that time went to education. SaskEd Lottery tickets, not possible you say? Other governments have done it. Ireland did.

If the motivation is to improve student outcomes what would those be? What is the evidence and how are you determining changes in governance would improve student outcomes? It is related to reading? Overall academics? Is there a model of excellence in a certain division you are trying to replicate and want to create more standardization across the province?

In collaborating with many of my colleagues many of us have other opinions as to improving outcomes for students. Here are a few:

From my own perspective poverty and not culture, race or ethnicity has the most  devastating effects on the outcomes for students and the research supports that. Children who live in poverty experience stress and trauma that can actually lead to physical changes in brain chemicals and functioning.

Factors such as health, environment, experience, emotional regulation, sensory regulation, attention, distractibility and impulsivity preclude many children from successful social and educational achievement. A proven critical factor in working with students living in poverty is a link to hearing loss. We need comprehensive screening and health care to ensure children are “ready to learn.”

Learning is actually the making of neurological pathways in the brain. Neurons that “fire together – wire together.” If children don’t have the experience, exposure and practice often enough, permanent learning just can’t occur. At-risk kindergarten students coming to school daily have greater outcomes than those who don’t, but not all have access in the system

Learning can absolutely happen at any age with anyone, but to have the most outcome and to have the most impact with the least amount of dollars, the earlier the better. Research supports this. Children with medically identified symptoms such as autism, Down’s syndrome and cerebral palsy have no access to specialized programs. They don’t qualify for the provincial Pre-K programs for “at-risk” students.

School divisions across Saskatchewan chose the best and brightest for leadership roles to do what you are tasked to do – to take all the information given to them and make the best decisions with the resources they have to benefit students in as many capacities as they can. Beyond that, earning and building trusting respectful relationships with each other and with each of the schools is developmental and requires a huge time commitment to come to the point efficient communication and effectiveness is achieved.

How have you measured the cost of losing these individuals? If the larger communities are chosen to have the division offices, what does that mean for smaller communities such as North Battleford? These leaders have personal relationships with nearly all of the staff they work with because the numbers allow it. We know which student we are talking about. We often know the family. We know this can’t be true with larger divisions.

Are you considering how this type of de-personalization will affect students and families, especially for rural areas? How far will someone like me drive? (I already visit three schools that are more than a 90 minute commute one way.) Will I have to move to a larger centre? If all of the central office personnel in the smaller centers either lose their jobs or have to move to new division centres, what does that loss look like for those smaller communitie? Have you factored in those social costs or the loss of income tax?

I also feel losing leadership through amalgamation loses diversity of thought and distribution of power. The larger you make the school divisions the fewer people have a voice and the less democratic it becomes. I’m not sure the diversity among our current school divisions is always capitalized on. Have you considered greater outcomes might be achieved through greater inter-communication between the school divisions versus going through amalgamation? Who has the most outcomes in reading, attendance and parent involvement? How are they achieving that? What outcomes are they achieving across the border with the same types of populations? What are they using? How are they measuring?

Although we have diversified in recent years, our economy continues to have an agricultural basis. Farming and rural life will remain central to our lives. Living Sky is one of those divisions. Increasing the school division sizes will reduce the number of elected board members and again shift the power structure. Rural students and their families will have less representation. This is one of the most impacting changes that will occur. We won’t be able to call up our local board member but rather it will be someone who doesn’t live in the community, know the school or know the teachers. Democracy is only as good as the ability to have the collective voice heard. We all need to have a voice. The larger government systems bring, the greater the risk for authoritative control. Does the ministry of education need more control? Why?

Appointed boards will only exaggerate this. Why do all the board members have to have the same political view? What is the benefit to students?

You are my representatives and you speak for me, too. And although many think these calls for public input are for naught, that you have an agenda already and likely made your decision long ago and the process is just obligatory, I am hoping not. I am still optimistic you will read what I and others have to say and will weigh the information carefully.

Please consider my views when you are sitting at the debate table. We need you to stand up for democracy and take the time to hear us.

— Sherry Bockus is a Speech-Language Pathologist with Living Sky School Division