STF president says 2.2% increase for schools still not enough to meet COVID-19 challenges

The president of the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation says today's provincial budget leaves him disappointed as he has heard school divisions may dip into reserves to "make ends meet" during as classes resume during the COVID-19 pandemic later this fall.

Saskatchewan government spending $42.1M more on education, 2.2% increase over previous year

Schools will resume in-class learning in Saskatchewan as early as September 1st, in some cases. Schools are receiving an additional $42.1 million in operational funding in 2020-2021. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)

The president of the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation says today's provincial budget leaves him disappointed as he has heard school divisions may dip into reserves to "make ends meet" during as classes resume during the COVID-19 pandemic later this fall.

The Saskatchewan government has increased overall spending this year including an additional $42.1 million going into the $1.94 billion total operational funding for schools, a 2.2 per cent increase over 2019-2020.

"It sounds like an increase but it gets used up pretty quickly, to the point that I'm hearing school divisions are going to have to go into their reserves in order to make numbers match up and try to make ends meet in their school divisions," Patrick Maze said on Monday.

Part of the spending increase in the government's numbers includes a compensation increase for the teachers this year, who finalized a deal during the pandemic, Maze noted.

He applauded the money being spent on infrastructure — $130.4 million — including $8.5 million for the planning and design for seven new schools and renovations of three existing schools.

Maze said the concerns come from the operation side, saying money specifically earmarked for pandemic costs would alleviate the worry on teachers' minds. 

There will be extra costs related to cleaning and maintenance, Maze said. Some schools may also have to rent facilities to accommodate distancing guidelines, he added. 

Included in the budget is $4.6 million for 10 "relocateable classrooms," in Regina, Saskatoon, Martensville and Warman. Another $6 million will be available in the next budget cycle.

"We've got another budget that really doesn't fully recognize inflationary pressures and enrolment increases that we're seeing in our public schools across Saskatchewan," Maze said.

Education Gordon Wyant said in a news release that the operational funding increase in fact does address an increase in enrolment and inflation.

"This budget addresses the growth in our schools while helping to stimulate our province's recovery with 10 new major school projects," Wyant said.

Patrick Maze, president of the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation, said pandemic-specific funding for COVID-19-related costs could have helped the costs when they do arise. (CBC)

In a release the Saskatchewan School Boards Association (SSBA) said the spending increase removes some uncertainty going forward.

"Operating funding levels for 2020-21 will enable boards to continue doing what they need to do at a base level, though fall short of the significant investment we hoped for to help address some of the challenges in classrooms," said Shawn Davison, president of the SSBA, in a news release.

The COVID-19 pandemic has rendered moot a carefully planned and phased three-year plan by Finance Minister Donna Harpauer to return to balance after a historic $1.2 billion deficit in 2017.

It was expected that 2020-2021 would post a modest surplus, but the effects of the pandemic pushed the province back to a deficit $2.4 billion.

"And then, [there is] absolutely nothing earmarked to specifically address the pandemic and the specific measures that different school divisions are going to face — and they're going to come at a cost — in order to prepare for the September opening of schools," Maze said.

The province announced in Monday's budget a $200 million health and public safety contingency fund, money set aside to deal with pandemic-related challenges, including a potential second wave of COVID-19 in later 2020.

The Saskatchewan NDP had called on the government to set aside a contingency fund for school divisions to access for additional costs related to COVID-19 such as personal protective equipment for teachers.

The Minister of Education Gordon Wyant announced last week that students would resume in-class learning this fall and some schools could be open as early as September 1st. 

Guidelines for schools from Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province's chief medical health officer, are expected to be released some time this week.

With files from Sam Maciag


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