There was a room full of politicians at the Living Sky school board office on Wednesday afternoon.
It was the long-awaited meeting between the board and the area’s MLAs. Battlefords MLA Herb Cox, Cut Knife-Turtleford MLA Larry Doke and Biggar-Saskatchewan Valley MLA Randy Weekes were all in attendance for the regular meeting of the board.
School board members did most of the talking at that meeting. At the outset, Director of Education Debbie Vickers gave a presentation outlining the needs of the school division in 2020.
A major theme from Vickers was the challenges faces by rural school divisions. One of the graphs shown to the MLAs indicated education funding in 2019-20 was down almost 12.5 per cent in real dollars from 2012-13, when adjusted for inflation.
The division also outlined their commitment to meeting or exceeding the targets included in the Education Sector Strategic Plan.
“We have this big plan, but can we properly resource it is our problem,” said Vickers. It was noted that although most of their funding is unconditional, they have fewer dollars with which to operate and have been forced to make some difficult choices.
The presentation pointed to staff reductions in 2017-18 of over $1 million, mainly through attrition or not renewing temporary contracts. In their budget they also chose not to increase the pupil-teacher ratio, and instead replaced no buses, reduced the amount of maintenance to buildings and did not address aging IT infrastructure.
The situation was described as “not sustainable” and $4 million was needed to catch up, Vickers said.
Another point raised was the impact of changes in the funding model for supports for learning funding. It was noted the result was a shift of that funding away from Living Sky School Division and other central and northern school divisions, and towards the bigger cities. Total SFL funding was down about $800,000 less than 2013-14, according to Vickers’ presentation. The point was made that this was an area where the school division needed more funding.
Other issues facing the school division were also brought up. The consolidation of schools in Cut Knife was mentioned.The board decided to close Cut Knife Elementary School and those students moved into the renovated high school in September of 2019.
A key message from the school division to the MLAs was that there was no more room for further efficiencies.
“We’ve cut and cut and cut to the point where we can’t cut anymore,” said Ronna Pethick, board chair. “Now, when we do cut it’s bodies, and where we need them in the most is the classroom because we can’t cut anywhere else.”
The MLAs listened with interest and asked questions. Doke posed a question on the issue of how many credits should be required to graduate high school.
“24 credits – right or wrong?” Doke asked the board, adding that the feedback from other boards was that 21 was sufficient.
The response from administrators stressed the need to have “alternate pathways” available to students to graduate, without so much restriction on number of courses.
One heated issue came up late in the meeting. Trustee Ken Arsenault brought up the issue of the MySchoolSask data reporting system that would allow the school divisions to communicate with the education ministry. The system was developed in July of 2018 but Arseneault noted it wasn’t even functional for the school division, particularly when it comes to reporting students’ progress.
“So far our school division has paid $110,458,” Arsenault said. “This has been in development since ’18. It still doesn’t work and it’s still not province-wide and we still don’t have a module to attach to it that reports students’ achievements to parents.”
He called it a “bone that picks with me because we had no choice in joining this. The money’s taken right off the top of our grants.”