Many are breathing a sigh of relief as the 2017-18 provincial budget confirms that government will not be amalgamating Saskatchewan’s 28 school divisions and will maintain locally elected school board trustees. However the sector will suffer from a $22 million decrease in operating funding, a 6.7 per cent decrease compared to last year.
Back in November 2016, deputy premier and Education minister Don Morgan appointed Dan Perrins to conduct a K-12 educational governance review. According to the Perrins Report, the review was meant to “present governance options that would focus on student success while ensuring accountability and efficient operating structures within the education system.”
In January 2017, a six-person advisory panel was appointed to lead consultations with the education sector. The panel met with more than 45 stakeholder groups and received more than 3,800 online submissions from Saskatchewan residents.
Key findings in the report showed unanimous support for no more amalgamation, but a “general agreement and acceptance that government may need to be more directive in requiring these sector-wide efficiencies to be realized.”
While amalgamation is no longer on the table, the government plans to make amendments to The Education Act to clarify roles in the sector and create efficiencies.
The amendments will give the Education minister more power to dictate how school boards are operated. Minister Don Morgan said they are aimed to reduce administrative costs through things like shared busing, common procurement and possibly common banking. But with new efficiencies comes the inevitable.
“You know when we have a reduction in the budget of $22 million. We want to see that come out and found by way of efficiencies, by way of common busing in Saskatoon and Regina, but there’s no doubt there will be fewer people working,” said Morgan.
Cuts are also happening within the ministry itself. They have reduced the ministry by 12 full time equivalents.
Carla Beck, Education critic for the NDP, believes the decision to scrap amalgamation is a sign that the government was listening to what the people wanted, but that the amendments to The Education Act will have a negative impact on school boards.
“So now what you have are school boards that, the size of compensation will be mandated by the minister, how they spend their operational money, how they spend their capital money, will be dictated by the ministry, as well as their ability to direct efficiency targets through boards. So really, all of their decision making power has been taken away,” said Beck.
Shawn Davidson, president of the Saskatchewan School Boards Association, is optimistic that the government is committed to working with school boards to make decisions. Education property tax collection will no longer be the responsibility of individual divisions after the minister receives his additional powers through legislative amendments. Davidson says that takes some of the pressure off school boards.
“And that's something that the SSBA has asked for, is that centralization of tax collections. It takes it off of the duties that we’re required to perform so that's one legislation change that, it requires a lot of legislative changes and we understand that it’s going to take some time, but we support that,” said Davidson.
While cooperation is the hope, there is a chance that more power for the ministry could result in more unilateral decision making. Davidson said the SSBA would strongly oppose any major changes that would limit the autonomy of the local school boards.
Patrick Maze, president of the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation, is disappointed by the decision not to amalgamate.
“Governance is expensive in education and I think if you ask students in the classroom what would you rather see, more trustees or more teacher supports and more supports in the classroom, I think the answer would be quite obvious,” said Maze. “There’s a number of inefficiencies that go on that should be corrected and so there was an opportunity here to get things right and I think that was squandered.”
Maze also feels like there weren’t enough teacher voices represented in the Perrin’s Report. A big reason for that he said was how quickly the review process was.
Saskatchewan’s 28 school divisions will receive $1.86 billion in school operating funding which includes revenue from the education property tax which will be adjusted to account for 40 per cent of school funding. This is down by $22 million.
According to a news release the government said it is “confident that school divisions can manage modest reductions with a limited impact on the classroom and front line supports.” But not everyone is as optimistic.
“I would say that is patently unbelievable,” said Beck in response. “Last year we saw funding for education that didn’t keep up with inflation...and remember we have 21 new schools coming online this year and an additional 2,000 students. So if the funds last year were insufficient to meet demands...an overall reduction of $22 million is going to put even more stress on the front line in education.“
Budget cuts to education, Beck says, are a clear sign that education is not a priority for the government.