“The budgets in O2 are remaining the same”.
Or so claimed education Minister Zach Churchill in an interview just a few weeks ago as our province witnessed yet another barrage of “We said/They said” rhetoric around the province’s education system.
For those of you who have not been following along, the past few weeks have seen a veritable firestorm of accusations and finger pointing when it was first revealed through social media posts that there were going to be reductions or perhaps complete eliminations of Early Literacy Support teachers in schools. These programs, which can target a relatively large number of students at once, were reportedly being replaced by a proportionate increase in funding for another program called Reading Recovery, designed for more individualistic interventions.
Next, social media began to buzz about changes in guidance counselor allocations for schools, where many teachers took to cyberspace to decry a reduction of staffing which would see previously full time guidance positions being reduced to percentages. This move was accompanied by reassurances from the government that there would be no actual cuts to guidance positions, but rather that there would be a more equitable and proportional distribution of services on a go forward basis. Every school, it was claimed, would now have access to in school guidance, albeit a bit less readily than had been the case for some students in the past.
Finally, a large number of Options and Opportunities co-ordinators took to the airways to express concerns about a rumoured cuts to their operational budgets for next year; cuts that would severely curtail the capacity the programs have to offer students an alternative path through high school. The government claimed, again, that no changes were coming.
The NSTU responded to these developments with several news releases and a number of media appearances by NSTU President Paul Wozney. The main message centered around finding some clarification about these changes and were accompanied by calls for transparency. Wozney claimed to be hearing from his membership that positions, if perhaps not being entirely cut, were certainly being reduced in what seemed to be higher than normal numbers. For his part, Minister Churchill stuck to his talking points and insisted that there were no cuts coming, but rather that this was simply a matter of “business as usual” when it comes budget time.
Once the Premier got back from his trade mission to China, he got involved in the fracas, disagreeing with Wozney about what was happening and stating with some emphasis that Wozney was misleading the public. He further stated that this was nothing more than Wozney wishing to avoid talking about the teachers pension in the upcoming round of contract bargaining. The NSTU President fired back with a letter to the Premier inviting him to visit schools where student supports, particularly in guidance, had been reduced.
Then, on Friday of this past week, the Minister of Education rather casually stated that the changes that had caused all the kerfuffle were not business as usual, but rather the result of a change in the way schools were funded. According to the Minister, the new model would take into account more than just school enrollment, and would also consider a region’s socioeconomics and as well as things like test scores to determine how much money jurisdictions will receive. It was this new formula that was causing all the fuss.
Even for me, its getting kind of hard to follow the bouncing ball.
Now, I don’t know if anyone would ever accuse me of being a strong supporter of this particular government, but the obvious question on everyone’s mind is why the Minister chose to wait to reveal this master plan around funding schools? It is not like Wozney was being quiet about his questions. If NSTU concerns about O2 funding and guidance allocations and all the rest were all simply a matter of a new funding formula, why would the Minister not simply say that from the outset? What was gained by keeping that from the public?
The other government official who perhaps should answer a question or two is the Premier himself. I doubt anyone would accuse McNeil of being pro-labour, but Paul Wozney was duly elected to his post by the membership. He defeated a pretty strong field of contenders, if I do say so myself, by a fairly convincing margin of victory. Although the Premier has been known to be hot-headed with the press from time to time, I don’t know if has ever insinuated with such vehemence that someone who, much like himself, was elected to public office, was intentionally lying to the public. I believe some accounting for that statement may perhaps be in order.
We certainly live in turbulent times, and it could very well be that this is just the first volley in yet another contentious round of bargaining between this government and the teachers who it employs. However, I think it might behoove the Premier to remember one thing before he expresses such anger against individuals in the system who are looking for answers to some fairly reasonable questions.
At one time in Nova Scotia another entity existed to which parents, teachers, and union officials alike could turn to with questions about such matters.
With all due respect, it was this Premier’s government that abolished elected school boards. I hope to goodness they did so realizing that it was to them stakeholders would now be turning to for answers.
If not, then I fear the Premier may have, by sending that particular public entity out to pasture, bitten off a tad more than perhaps he is able to comfortably chew.
Originally published in The Chronicle Herald, May 21st, 2019