Friday, August 28, 2020

Death by a thousand cuts

Others are rightly pointing out that we have a strong precedent as to what the Saskatchewan Party's version of austerity actually means, in the form of the disastrous 2017 budget which saw massive and cruel cuts made with no regard for their devastating impact on the province. But there's an even more instructive example as to the Moe government's cut-first mindset in its treatment of education funding this fall.

Right now, parents across Saskatchewan are wrestling with questions as to how to handle the start of the school year. Our choices have been made far more difficult by the Saskatchewan Party's delay in acknowledging any need for safety measures. And while the government has loudly announced funding (or taken credit for what the federal government has provided), it's set up a vague, limited and uncertain process to determine whether how any of it will be distributed:
"With the federal government's contribution, there is now up to $150 million available to our education sector for costs associated with a safe return to school," Wyant said.
The provincial government said the money will be available throughout the school year. However, the deadline for the first intake of funding applications closes Thursday.

Wyant said there have only been two applications for funding so far, but he expects that number will rise. He said government will have a deadline for another round of applications in October and then on a quarterly basis.

The government did not indicate how much money will be given out or what the criteria to receive funding are, but Wyant said Wednesday the priorities are supporting immunocompromised​​ students, resources for online learning, supplies and staffing.
In other words, virtually none of the money supposedly allocated to a safe return to school will have even been considered for disbursement - let alone put to good use - for a period of months after schools are supposed to reopen. 

But when it comes to clawing back money from school divisions, the Saskatchewan Party is starting from a philosophy of taking funding away first and asking questions later:
The Saskatchewan NDP is warning that a COVID-fuelled enrolment plunge could take a bite out of school division budgets this school year, swallowing resources just when they’re needed to protect against the pandemic.
“We have asked the government if they will be scaling back, clawing back, those dollars from divisions based on who doesn’t attend school in person,” he said. “We know that the costs to schools will be greater as they are dealing with a pandemic and how do they do infection control.”

The government has not provided any such commitment, according to Meili. He said the Ministry of Education has signalled that the “traditional approach” will remain unchanged. That means calculating funding for each school division based on a formula in which the total student body plays a major role. The amounts are updated based on actual enrolment submitted as of Sept. 30.
In a statement to the Leader-Post the Ministry of Education said it “will work with divisions regarding their September 30 enrolment data to understand the impact any adjustment may have.”
Of course, the best way to ensure parents are comfortable with the safety of the school environment would have develop and fund a meaningful plan when it could still have been implemented before the school year.

But having failed in that task, Scott Moe and company are now planning by default to strip away base funding from the school divisions who have been assigned impossible responsibilities with insufficient resources. And the amount set to be pulled back based on the inflexible application of a funding formula could far exceed what's on the table in COVID-related relief: while the initial reporting mentioned numbers along the lines of 10% decreases in enrollment, the experience of Edmonton's public school board suggests the cuts to the total operating funding of $1.94 billion could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

In sum, the Saskatchewan Party's default position is to slash funding at the drop of a hat, but to set up cumbersome processes which delay any investment even when it comes to top priorities in the midst of a public health emergency. And we'll go to the polls in the wake of a vivid reminder of the consequences of that mindset.

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