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Editorial: School divisions need adequate funding, but need to be smart with spending

On opinion piece on changes across school divisions due to provincial funding.
South East Cornerstone head office
South East Cornerstone Public School Division building

We’ve been hearing the concerns raised from school divisions for a while: they need the proper funding from the provincial government in order to meet the educational needs of Saskatchewan’s children. 

The government might come to them with measured increases in funding, and tout the increase in their provincial budget, but keep in mind these school divisions have to worry about wage increases for teachers and other employees, along with increases in the cost of doing business.

The South East Cornerstone Public School Division’s board passed its budget last week. It includes the loss of 23.8 full-time equivalent teaching positions, and 11.46 FTE non-teaching positions that cover everything from community education liaisons to library technicians,  and caretakers to carpenters.

The job cuts shouldn’t be a surprise, since we knew that school divisions were concerned about the amount of money they were receiving from the government. But the sheer volume of them likely caught some people off guard. 

And it’s ultimately going to be the students who face the consequences, because it means there will be fewer teachers in the classroom.

Cornerstone says most of the job losses for teachers will be covered by attrition, but what are they going to do when the day comes in which attrition is no longer an option, and they have to make some really hard decisions about who stays and who goes?   

Perhaps it’s time for the school divisions to have autonomy restored when it comes to the education portion of property tax. Those involved with education in southeast Saskatchewan likely have a better idea of the needs of this region than those who are based in Regina.

You could say the same for every other school division in the province.  

Of course, school divisions would have to be ready to account for why they’re increasing their share of property taxes. They can’t just say “Well, it was the provincial government’s decision.” Regardless of whether you’re the federal government, provincial government, school board or municipal council, when taxes increase, you have to be prepared to give an answer and give detailed explanation for why it’s happening.

This is definitely not a call for us to return to the days of not so long ago, when an obscene 60 per cent of our property taxes went to school division, by far the highest rate in the country. But you should be able to have a system in which school divisions have control over mill rates, and schools aren’t taking an excessive amount of property taxes. 

Municipalities have their own autonomy over taxation. Don’t school boards deserve the same?

This is also not an effort to pass the buck from the school division to the provincial government. The division has to take a long hard look at what it can do to hold the line on expenses. Most will people want to see the division cut back on front office staff rather than the number of teachers or other employees within schools.

It’s not easy being on the board or the staff for a Saskatchewan school division. Most of them now cover a vast area. Board engagement with the public has suffered in the last 15 years. In the case of public school divisions, we used to have a public and a rural school division for Estevan, each with five trustees and a shared office in Estevan.

Now Estevan is part of a massive school division that stretches from Moosomin to Lake Alma. We have two trustees on the board and the head office is in Weyburn.

They not only have to think about the needs of Estevan and Weyburn when making a decision, they have to think of other communities.

And they`re faced with rising transportation costs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only added to the challenges they have had to encounter.

Unfortunately, when the time comes for people to do something about the direct of the school division, they sit on their hands. Most years the two seats available for Estevan on the Cornerstone board have been decided by acclamation. 

It’s tough to see good people let go and possibly be forced to leave our communities. We can only hope this is the last time for a while that Cornerstone and other school divisions find themselves in this situation.