Getting schooled

February 21, 2011 11:42 AM

Grade 12 political science classes take note: the fight over budget cuts between District 1 and Education Minister Jody Carr provides some good lessons in politics for just about everyone.

District 1, the sprawling francophone district that takes in schools from Moncton all the way to Saint John and Fredericton, says it can't implement the province's required one-per-cent budget cut this year without affecting classroom learning.

Last December, Carr guaranteed in the Legislature that, "there will be no cuts to classroom learning" in the province and repeated the David Alward government's mantra that there is always one per cent to be found in administrative overhead.

Ernest Thibodeau, the District 1 board chair, said the district is a special case, not because it's francophone (as some have cynically suggested) but because it's the only district of 16 where student enrollment is actually growing.

This is true, and it adds an extra level of complexity to the issue: in just about all the debates about scarce provincial funding, a booming population has not exactly been a factor.

In District 1, it is -- but the district board ought to acknowledge it has sought this growth, meaning it's a "problem" partly of its own making. Even today, when the board is claiming it can't cope with the cut and with increased enrollment, its web site still displays its TV recruitment ad aimed at mixed English-French couples whose kids have a Charter right to attend school in French.

Nonetheless, more kids are more kids. Thibodeau said last week that the province's own policies on classroom size forced the board to hire new teachers in January as enrollment continued to grow. Yet the Alward Tories refused to fund those new positions, he said. If that's not a classroom impact, it's hard to imagine what is.

This may explain why Carr's rhetoric has shifted from that earlier, unequivocal promise. Now he's saying the cuts will happen with "the least impact on the classroom" possible. Of course, "the least impact" means "some impact." It doesn't mean "no impact."

The Liberals, of course, are delighting in this dispute. But they aren't innocents in this. Thibodeau has recalled their own cuts to school support staff in light of their comments now that schools should be exempt from the one-per-cent edict.

And it will be worth reminding the Liberals, whenever they return to government, that they have endorsed a school district's defiance of provincial policy. Lastly, fewer mixed English-French families may have sent their children to District 1 had the Graham government not made such a mess of French immersion.

There is one hint of a resolution to this impasse: Thibodeau said last week that the district's inability to implement the cut was based on Carr's December criteria of "no cuts to classroom learning." Now that the minister has jettisoned that unrealistic requirement, perhaps the board can comply.
-- Jacques Poitras

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