There was one thing that immediately jumped out of the March 21 provincial budget documents that were handed to Marc Casavant, the South East Cornerstone Public School Division education director, when he and other division officials made their way to the provincial legislature.
The Cornerstone team learned quickly that the funding for their particular division was going up by 5.8 per cent ... not down as predicted earlier. That good news was delivered by provincial Finance Minister Ken Krawetz who released the Saskatchewan government's budget.
A one-time top up of $10 million spread across a number of school divisions is going a long way in easing the transition to a new funding formula that was imposed on school divisions by the provincial government over three years ago, but which is only now being revealed to them.
With a general funding increase of five per cent across the province, the 5.8 per cent for Cornerstone looks pretty good, as does the 6.1 per cent increase in funding for the regional Holy Family Roman Catholic Separate School Division.
“We still need to analyze the different envelopes of funding. We get a certain envelope of funds for governance as an example, and then another envelope just for transportation and another for maintenance and operations and so on,” Casavant said. “But personally, I think we're in good shape because we already have the resources in the areas we need them in, by doing some forward planning a few years ago.”
There will be adjustments of course, but that's something they have to do every year anyway.
“We're in the third year of a three-year strategic plan, now we'll develop a four-year plan with the provincial government information to work with and maybe we'll just need some tweaking of priorities.”
Casavant said he was pleased to see the government is not toying with any major changes to a bold early learning project that has become a priority item for Cornerstone. He said there are 15 new pre-kindergarten programs contained in the Education Ministry's budget and he hoped that Cornerstone would be awarded one more, although they already have eight spread across the division, including two already established in Estevan.
“The government has promised to mitigate those school divisions that are being hit the hardest and we weren't one of them,” the director said.
“So then the big question is ... why did we get hit last year with a $1.35 million cut? It seems tax rebalancing has nothing to do with education spending then.
“We require three to six per cent in funding increases every year just to keep up with inflation such as salary increases for teachers that are negotiated by the province, not us. We have to build in increases for natural inflation and fuel costs.”
Casavant said there are two areas that are still raising questions and those are the funding envelopes for capital projects and local agreements with educators.
“When it comes to capital projects, they have new ideas and we're not sure who is going to end up as owners of new facilities,” Casavant added.
As far as local teacher benefits are concerned, the address on that envelope is a little smudged too.
“Some school divisions have something like $1,400 per teacher assigned for local benefits while other divisions have built in as much as $20,000 per teacher. So if we're looking for equitable funding across the line, somebody is going to have to address that situation,” he said.
The new funding envelope for plant operations and maintenance might be welcomed once Cornerstone gets all their priorities lined up. It seems the new model is an attempt to eliminate a whole roll of red tape.
“If we could get that envelope of funds assigned and then be allowed to prioritize our own needs, that would be a big help. But I understand cabinet hasn't approved that yet.We'll have to wait on that one,” Casavant said.
The director said another thing that has to come across to the public is the fact that a good surplus of funds have to be carried over from one year to the next to ensure that capital projects already underway can be paid for as the bills come due.
“We have to hold the money away from the rest of budget to pay down the capital and interest costs without touching the general operating budget. So when the public sees a big surplus on our financial statement, they might think that we're getting too much money and don't need any more, when really, that isn't the case. We have millions we have to put aside to pay for future big ticket projects.”
But with those few negative components aside, Casavant said he felt pretty good about the overall outcome in terms of funding for kindergarten to Grade 12 programs in southeast Saskatchewan's public schools.