Prairie Spirit to face $7 million funding shortfall next year

By Joel van der Veen

WARMAN — The board chairman for Prairie Spirit School Division said it’s not yet clear how a $7 million funding shortfall for the coming year will affect individual schools.

A bulletin sent to parents by the division last month indicated that the shortfall — representing 6 per cent of the overall budget — was on the horizon, and greater than initially expected.

Board chairman Larry Pavloff said administrators are working “feverishly” to determine how to address the gap while reducing the repercussions for students, but added that more details wouldn’t be available until later in the spring.

“The impact on each individual school should be known in the middle of June,” he said. “We’re trying to minimize the impact on our student learners and adult learners.”

For the 2015-16 school year, the division — which covers 45 schools in the communities surrounding Saskatoon, including Hanley Composite School and Dundurn Elementary School — received a funding increase of $3.6 million.

Pavloff argued that this essentially covers the cost of teachers’ salaries as negotiated by the province, leaving the division with effectively the same funding they received the previous year.

This means there’s no new funding to cover other costs, like higher enrolment levels, inflation or contractual obligations.

As Pavloff said, “We have no way of spending that, because that money is already spent.”

The chairman said the division has pledged that no current full-time staff will lose their jobs, and that they hoped that attrition through retirement would help to bridge the gap.

Pavloff said the current situation began in 2012, when the province’s new education funding model came into effect, developed over the course of three years.

He said the model did not reflect the reality facing Prairie Spirit, and that problems were soon detected.

Transitional funding was introduced to help divisions maintain services and education prior to the introduction of the new model, and divisions have since been told to tailor their budgets to fit.

Pavloff said that the division protested at the time, but “the ministry hasn’t budged on that.”

According to the bulletin issued by Prairie Spirit, it is one of the province’s lowest-funded school divisions on a per capita basis. Funding per student has decreased from $10,386 in 2011-12 to $9,783 in 2014-15.

The division also has one of the highest pupil-to-teacher ratios in the province, which has grown as the board has attempted to cope with the funding shortfall.

Prairie Spirit has made more than $2 million in staffing and programming cuts over the last two years, while $3 million in reserve funding was used to balance last year’s budget.

For the 2013-14 school year, Prairie Spirit had a graduation rate of 87.0 per cent, compared to the provincial average of 74.7 per cent.

At that time, according to the division, assurance was given that the funding model would be adjusted to address the inequity, but nothing has happened on that front since.

The bulletin also said the shortfall would strain its ability to maintain graduation rates, results in literary and math, and success amongst its First Nations and Métis students.

Pavloff said the conflicting information has led to confusion among parents. The division held its annual general meeting on Waldheim on April 29, following which the board answered some questions about the budget.

Attempts to reach the Ministry of Education for contact late last week were unsuccessful.