Proposed staff cuts at Ecole Boreale are raising the ire of some parents with children in the French-language school.
According to budget plans by the Commission Scolaire Francophone – the French-language school board in the NWT – Ecole Boreale is set to lose one teacher and 1.3 classroom assistant positions.
“We were basically kind of blindsided on March 9 when we read this,” said Richard Skelhorn, an Ecole Boreale parent, who said parents first heard of the cuts in an email from a teacher.
Skelhorn said it appears the cuts are largely the result of a requirement by the Department of Education, Culture and Employment (ECE) for the school board head office to hire a regional co-ordinator responsible for programs, assessment and integration, otherwise known as a regional inclusive schooling co-ordinator.
“But our school board has two schools, and the English school board has how many schools,” said Kandace Groenewegen, another Ecole Boreale parent. “So they’re asking us to juggle the few bucks we have to make up this one position and lose staff where the kids are affected. That’s our main beef with this whole situation.”
The other school under the Commission Scolaire Francophone is Yellowknife’s Ecole Allain St-Cyr, which is also facing cuts of 1.3 teaching positions and one classroom assistant.
Skelhorn said the parents have a few options to fight the cuts at Ecole Boreale.
“I think one of the primary options that we’re doing because of the cabinet shuffle is to write another letter to the minister and have more parents sign it and send it in,” he said, adding that would essentially be a petition.
On April 4, Caroline Cochrane replaced Alfred Moses as the minister of ECE.
“We’re hopeful that she’ll be more supportive of the school,” said Groenewegen.
The two parents said the cuts could have a number of negative impacts on the school, particularly by creating a three-grade classroom.
“It’s pretty dangerous, because when you get into a three-grade classroom you risk the potential of qualified teachers who have been there a long time probably leaving,” said Skelhorn. “You also risk the potential of probably even people who are currently going there considering other options.”
Natalie Campbell, the vice-president of the Commission Scolaire Francophone and also an Ecole Boreale parent, said the cuts are not yet finalized.
“But it’s what the projection is right now with the budget projection and enrolment projection in front of us,” she said.
Campbell said staffing cuts are never ideal.
“Nobody wants to cut staff,” she said. “We’re a small town. Everyone knows each other and these are not easy decisions to make.”
Campbell explained that the hiring of an inclusive schooling co-ordinator is just one of three main reasons for the cuts.
Another reason has been declining enrolment in the French-language schools since a ministerial directive in 2008 restricted who was eligible to attend to language rights-holders.
“Since that directive in 2008, every year school admissions have been dropping,” she said, noting enrolment that year was 115, but was just 80 for the 2017-2018 school year.
In 2016, the school board lobbied for revision of the directive to open up to a few more non-rights-holders categories.
Campbell said the third reason was changes in funding formulas, noting there were reduced allocations to school districts so that schools with fewer than 500 students are at a disadvantage.
She noted the board’s head office in Yellowknife will also be impacted by the loss of its office co-ordinator.
“In terms of the quality of education, we are confident we can still provide the same level of quality education that we’re currently offering,” she said. “We have the best academic success rates in the Northwest Territories and, even with the cuts, still one of the best teacher-to-student ratios in the Northwest Territories.”
Next year, that ratio is projected to be eight students to one teacher.
Ecole Boreale already has a couple of combined grades in one classroom and Campbell said while the decision is not final, it looks like there will be a classroom of three grades for one teacher next school year.
She said the cuts might be avoided if there is a large increase in enrolment, although she said that is unlikely.
Ecole Boreale will be holding an open house in May when non-rights-holders can check out if they are eligible to apply for their children to attend the school.
Jacqueline McKinnon, manager of communications and public affairs with ECE, said all education bodies receive funding based on a funding formula and they have some flexibility in determining where the funds should be spent.
“With the exception of funding for inclusive schooling and Indigenous languages and education funding, ECE does not specify how funding should be allocated to the schools,” said McKinnon. “Each education body has responsibility for using its funds in a manner that meets the needs of its constituents and is accountable for its spending decisions.”
She noted a large component driving costs is the number of students attending schools, and as a result of student enrolment changes under the Commission Scolaire Francophone, overall funding decreased by $78,000.
“No elements of the formula were changed that would have resulted in a cut to funding to the commission,” McKinnon noted. “In fact, the department has enhanced elements of the formula to enrich the funding provided to education bodies.”