The Chinook Board of Education continued their 2022-23 budget deliberations during a regular board meeting on April 11 and also listened to concerns expressed by a delegation of educations assistants (EAs).
The Chinook School Division previously provided details about its proposed 2022-23 budget in a media release and communications sent to parents and staff.
The Chinook School Division said in a media release on March 24, a day after the provincial budget was announced, that it will face “one of its greatest challenges” in developing the budget for the next school year.
The school division’s grant of $77.91 million in the provincial budget is about $563,000 or 0.7 per cent more than the previous year, which will be insufficient to cover the expected inflationary cost increases.
There will be a projected budgetary cash deficit of $5.1 million for 2022-23, which will be a combination of a $4.2 million cash deficit from 2021-22 and $940,000 of new inflationary costs in the 2022-23 budget that will not be covered with provincial funding.
The school division indicated in a letter to families on March 31 that it is therefore considering a reduction of about 20 teaching positions through attrition and by offering a one-time retirement incentive to staff.
It is also considering a reduction in the working schedules for EA positions, which will be cut by 30 minutes a day for full-time positions. Other measures under consideration include reduction in various departments, the removal of the allocation for teacher substitutes in school budgets, a reduction of curriculum resources and purchasing fewer buses in 2022-23.
A large delegation of EAs attended the April 11 board meeting to voice their concerns over the impact of the proposed budget on their positions. EAs Heather Fisher and Carlin Lee made a presentation on behalf of the delegation.
Fisher said they were “absolutely in shock as well as devastated” by the budget details provided to them in a letter on March 30, which indicated a reduction in full-time EA schedules by 30 minutes per day.
“The amount of money being saved is approximately $2,395 a year per EA at the top of the wage or in other words 10 per cent of our earnings,” she said. “To a person who earns over $100,000 a year this might not seem like much of a sacrifice, but to those of us who barely earn $30,000 it’s a great deal of money.”
The reduced hours will mean EAs will be working 27.5 hours per week and they will no longer be considered full-time employees in accordance with the provincial labour standards, which requires a full-time employee to work 30 hours per week. This change in their employment status will not only mean a reduced income, but also a lower amount of vacation pay, they will need to work more years to qualify for retirement, and they are concerned about losing their benefits.
Lee spoke about the essential role of EAs in classrooms and their concern over the impact that their reduced hours will have on students.
“With the reduction of EAs working time, there will be less support for our students,” she said.
She noted that EAs provide highly individualized support to students that involves a variety of tasks to cater to the needs of each student.
“Not one EA provides a generalized or generic service,” she said. “This is because our students are not generic. Rather, they are each unique individuals.”
She mentioned that the job of an EA can be mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting, and these cuts might deter others from considering a career as an educational assistant.
Chinook Board Chair Kimberly Pridmore said during a media interview after the board meeting the school division is facing the dilemma of a structural deficit.
“It goes back to several years of consistent underfunding and when there’s no recognition of the inflationary costs and then that continues year after year, it has that compounding effect,” she noted. “And now we’re at a place where over the years we’ve tried to keep those reductions out of the classroom and we’re no longer able to do that. So this gets us to 2022-23, where we have to take the cuts out of the classroom.”
She explained the reason behind the board’s decision to consider a reduction in hours worked by EAs. The 2022-23 provincial budget announcement included a new $7 million allocation for school divisions to hire up to 200 additional full-time EAs for the 2022-23 school year. According to Pridmore a single-year allocation of funding is difficult to implement, because those positions are then only available for that year.
“We were concerned with the government’s commitment of a one-year conditional increase in that area, because that’s all it is,” she said. “It’s not a commitment for anything more than one year and so no division in the province is going to hire EAs for one year and then lay them all off.”
She said the Chinook School Division therefore decided to consider a reduction in the hours of all EAs that will still provide them with employment.
The other alternative will be to permanently reduce a certain number of EA positions while keeping the remaining EA positions at their current number of employment hours. In such a case the provincial funding will only delay cutting some of those positions with a year.
“It would be potentially 10 to 15 positions cut across our division,” she said. “So the funding would allow us to put six of those back maybe or half of those back, but for one year, and we just felt it was a better solution to cut back hours and keep everybody with a job as opposed to taking an EA out of schools that rely on them.”
She expressed appreciation towards the delegation of EAs for their presentation and indicated the board will have further discussions about the budget.
“The board hasn’t had a chance obviously to discuss following the delegation today,” she said. “Of course, we appreciate them bringing their perspective to us today. We do value their positions in our division. We know the hard work that they put in with the students in the classroom. So we’ll have more discussions following today’s meeting.”
However, she cautioned that the board is facing a difficult challenge with the 2022-23 budget and it will be difficult to avoid an impact on staff.
“At this point we have hit other departments and taken reductions where we can, but we’re at the point now where it has to come from staffing,” she said.