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No cuts? No way!


September 15, 2020 Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief

Government annual report shows cuts in education spending

Raise your hand if you’ve heard Adriana LaGrange say there have not been cuts to education.

Now keep your hands up if you believe it. That’s what I thought.

Since last fall teachers have been witnessing cost cutting by school boards. Many divisions came out and flat out said they had their funding reduced in last fall’s 2019 provincial budget.

Yet, despite the reality on the ground, the minister, premier, finance minister and other officials maintained the consistent message: no cuts to education.

We could see the chart they posted in our sleep. We could recite from memory the bottom line number they pointed to — $8.223 billion in operational spending maintained from 2019 through to 2023.

Well, I needed to rub my eyes when I opened the government’s 2019–20 annual report in August and read the end-of-year actual: $8.134 billion.

Just because something is repeated often enough, that doesn’t make it true.

Page six of the annual report, which outlines all government revenue and expenses for the year ending March 31, 2020, reads as follows regarding education: “The change from 2018–19 includes decreases of $87 million in operating expense, primarily from lower school board spending.”

As the kids say, we have the receipts. Spending in education for 2019–20 was reduced by $87 million when compared to 2018–19, and that only accounts for 7/12 of the school year, which carries on past the March deadline for these statements. Furthermore, it does not account for the additional cut related to COVID school closures that took effect in May.

Interestingly, even in the face of this evidence, the government maintains its mantra.

“To be clear, government funding to school authorities was not cut in 2019–20,” reads the statement from LaGrange’s press secretary Colin Aitchison in response to this finding. “What appears in the annual report is what school authorities actually spent — this includes the funding provided by the province, but also their own revenues.”

“When comparing the actual amount spent in 2018–19 to 2019–20, the $87M difference is due to school jurisdictions spending less than they did in the 2018–19 fiscal year, not what they were funded by the province.”

Yes, these numbers principally show the reduction in spending made by school boards (which I would call cuts, nonetheless). But I disagree that they do not also represent a decrease in provincial funding.

We also have the receipts for that!

School board profiles from 2019–20 are posted to the government’s open data portal. They show that school divisions were projected to receive a total of $6.615 billion in operational funding from the Department of Education.

Through a freedom of information request, the Association found that the actual funding provided to school divisions in the 2018–19 school year totaled $6.741 billion. A decrease of $126 million.

The new findings from the government’s annual report reaffirm the previous information obtained by the Association and clearly identify cuts in education, contrary to the minister’s claims.

I don’t write this column so much as a “told ya so” as I do for the purpose of fact-checking current claims.

Government officials are now proud to point to an increase in funding to school boards of $120 million ($117 million when you exclude charters) for 2020–21 as part of an argument that school divisions have the funding they need to battle COVID. This sounds impressive until you reconcile it with the fact that boards were cut funding by $126 million in 2019–20 and are still down from where they were two years ago.

But it’s OK, argue ministry officials, boards also have $363 million in operating reserves they can access. Well, not quite. School boards have not produced audited financial statements since Aug 31, 2019, so the $363 million number appears to be at least a year old.

Furthermore, when the government introduced Budget 2019 in the fall, the minister recognized funding would be tight and encouraged boards to use reserves in order to preserve programs and staffing last year. As a result, school board reserves are not that high any more. To put it simply, they can’t spend that money twice; much of it has already been used.

It can all be quite confusing. Sadly, I’m left to believe that the government spokespeople may be actively peddling this confusion in order to continue to advance their debunked claims of “no cuts.”

In the meantime, school boards are left to fight COVID with no new funding from the provincial government. At least Justin Trudeau stepped up. ❚

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