August 4th, 2020

Laying it Out: The kids aren’t alright

By Medicine Hat News Opinon on December 21, 2019.

Before I take a break from Laying it Out to celebrate Christmas with my family – and to help clean up the newsroom after the bombing from the UCP war room – I would like to shift gears a little.

As I’ve said before, the war room is a distraction. It’s been good to laugh this week, but while we poke fun we tend to miss what’s important.

Do you know who isn’t distracted? Organizers of more than 360 early childhood development programs who all received notice in November that their funding would cease as of March 31, 2020, thanks to the cancelling of 450 grants that covered essential services such as Parent Link Centres.

Each has until Jan. 20 at 2 p.m. to reapply under the new Family Resources Network.

I realize details can be dry and feelings are more fun, but if the devil is in the details, I believe these ones are possessed. If you bear with me for a bit, I’ll try to make it up to you at the end.

Here’s what I know:

The document that includes the application for funding is 64 pages. The first page lets programs know they have the “opportunity to compete” with the others for that money. The second highlights the goal to “maximize rigour relating to the granting process.” (Dictionaries describe the meaning of rigour with words like “strict, harsh, scrupulous and inflexible.”)

Mistakes will not be tolerated. Any failure in filling out the application, or meeting its list of “mandatory requirements,” will result in immediate rejection.

Funding for these programs totalled $77 million last year, and while Children’s Services Minister Rebecca Schulz told the Edmonton Journal that the goal was to reduce it down to about $65 million, the application document shows $57 million available across the province. (I’ll concede the possibility that another $8 million is planned for somewhere.)

Successfully funded programs in the Family Resources Network will fall into a system of “hubs” and “spokes,” with hubs needing a sufficiently sized “brick and mortar” facility and enough organization to distribute services through a region’s spokes. Spokes get their own funding, but report to the hubs.

The province has been divided into regions and funding is being distributed based on child population size, with each region labelled small, medium or large. Medicine Hat and area is considered large.

Applications requesting to be both the hub and the spokes will be reviewed first, with those seeking only to be a hub getting the next look. Smaller programs without a large facility will have to apply to be a spoke, and assuming they get through that first make-or-break checklist without error, they will go last.

“Evaluation Teams” will comb through applications and provide scoring along the way. Specific sections are scored out of six, and if the evaluators on that application give a single score of less than 3.5, that’s it. Denied.

There is a lot more in there to unpack, but I realize it’s not very entertaining stuff. Important things often aren’t.

So, here’s what I think:

I think this is designed to weed programs out while giving the government a way to avoid direct criticism. I think they’ll say they are providing a “more efficient and accountable” system and that if programs are unable to meet requirements for funding, it’s on them.

I think when the UCP says “efficient,” they just mean “cheap.”

Competition, by definition, means winners and losers. I think this government loves competition, even if the losers include kids.

A 64-page document that constantly repeats itself – especially about how you can screw it up – is confusing and terrifying, with gusts up to threatening. I think that is on purpose.

I think this process favours larger facilities and program directors with the most experience in grant applications. I think evaluating “spoke” applications last means the smaller, fringe programs that offer special services geared to specific communities are at most risk to dissolve. I think those programs existed with great reason, and that will leave parents struggling to find a new one to address their child’s needs.

I think a lot of children are going to lose out simply because the director of their program’s expertise was in developing children, not handling the “rigour” of a grant system designed to weed the little ones out.

I think red-tape reduction only matters if it’s a corporation looking to skirt the rules, not a publicly funded program trying to serve families. I think it’s deplorable to judge programs on how they stack up to others instead of what they do for the children they serve. And I think program directors are scared that if they speak up, they will lose their funding anyway.

I think this government lies to your face about being “broke” while it spends all kinds of money on useless political theatre designed to distract. I think it is getting all its “savings” off the backs of the most vulnerable people we have.

But most of all, I think it only takes a few minutes on the phone or at the computer to send a message to the Ministry of Children’s Services that if it simply must save $12-$20 million a year, it should go see Tom Olsen, whose $30-million battle group couldn’t even get out of Alberta without tussling a small-city daily in the “forgotten corner.”

Either way, leave them kids alone.

Scott Schmidt is the layout editor at the Medicine Hat News. Contact him at sschmidt@medicinehatnews.com. All opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the News’ editorial board.

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