The Manitoba St. James-Assiniboia School Division’s shrinking student population is anticipated to allow its 26 schools to maintain current class sizes and programs in 2023-24, despite annual funding failing to meet the increased cost of living.

The local board of trustees is scheduled to vote on a $123.3-million draft budget during a public meeting Tuesday evening.

The spreadsheet, which plans for a decrease of about 40 students division-wide, includes the termination of 12 full-time teaching positions.

Board chairwoman Cheryl Smukowich said the staffing cuts will be made through attrition and affect supply teacher positions introduced during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to address a spike in sick days.

Smukowich, a veteran trustee, said the board is projecting attendance challenges to improve next year.

Many metro Winnipeg divisions are debating sizable reductions — from the termination of full-day kindergarten in Pembina Trails to the future of free instrument rentals in Seven Oaks — due to respective budget constraints.

“The declining enrolment is the difference between us and the other metro divisions,” Smukowich said, adding the province’s latest funding announcement, while welcome, was not as “astronomical” as it was made out to be.

Last month, Education Minister Wayne Ewasko called the government’s commitment to increase dollars for public education by 6.1 per cent for next year as “astronomical, as far as an announcement goes.”

Ewasko indicated every board was guaranteed to receive the equivalent of a 2.5 per cent hike in annual funding — a stark contrast from consecutive years of many boards receiving stagnant or declining cash injections.

SJASD’s share has increased by 5.2 per cent, but Smukowich made a point of noting that figure does not match the rate of inflation.

The consumer price index rose by nearly six per cent between January 2023 and one year prior, per Statistics Canada’s latest data.

A 32-page breakdown of the draft budget notes upkeep for aging buildings, technology-related upgrades and salary costs are among the division’s rising costs. Employee wages and benefits account for 85 per cent of SJASD’s expenses.

In recent years, the division has sold or leased surplus sites to create additional revenue, launched an international student program, and limited school bus eligibility to anyone who lives at or beyond 1.6 kilometre, instead of only one km from a catchment building, to find savings.

“Every budget season is difficult because the funding is not keeping up with the demand and we also still don’t know where the property tax funding will come from (once it is fully phased out),” the board chairwoman added.

The president of the St. James-Assiniboia Teachers’ Association said student and staff mental health continue to be major concerns, amid ongoing COVID-19-related disruptions.

“The caseload of our clinicians is huge and they do their best to get to the students within their caseloads, but it can be very difficult when you’ve got over 200 cases open to you and you’re trying to do your best to provide the supports and services that some of our students need,” Kent McPherson said, adding Teachers feel the impacts of funding not keeping pace with inflation, from limited clinician resources to educational assistant support.

By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 06, 2023

This item reprinted with permission from   Free Press   Winnipeg, Manitoba
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