By JEREMY APPEL on April 3, 2020.
Medicine Hat’s public and separate school divisions were able to avoid laying off educational support staff after a sudden cut from the provincial government announced over the weekend.
The Ministry of Education informed the province’s school divisions they would each receive a 14 per cent cut to their per student base grant and a 51 per cent cut to their transportation grant, which each board was given the latitude to absorb as they see fit.
CUPE Local 829, which represents educational assistants, clerical staff and custodians at Medicine Hat Public School Division, as well as custodians at the Medicine Hat Catholic Board of Education and Prairie Rose School Division’s three Redcliff schools, made arrangements with each board to ensure its members were protected.
Local president Sharon Stolz credits the strong relationship the union has with the boards for maintaining the status quo for its membership through unprecedented circumstances .
“I have taken pride in building the relationships that we have with our boards. I feel that relationships are key to coming to a common understanding and denominator,” Stolz said, describing this collaborative approach as “common sense.”
Members can apply for voluntary layoffs with their benefits intact, she added.
MHPSD superintendent Mark Davidson told the News the division “looked for cuts away from staffing that would allow us to provide direct supports to students and families, and provide assistance to teachers, who are of course teaching in a way that is unfamiliar to most.”
He says there were many “natural savings” as a result of the move to online classes, such as a reduced need for office supplies at each school and services at central office, among others.
“The board returned funds that they won’t be spending, because they won’t be attending conferences or be engaged in some of the collaborative activity that they normally would with other jurisdictions,” Davidson explained.
“Facilities and maintenance engaged in some pretty creative work around turning off and unplugging all small appliances, reducing the amount of time that our air circulation systems run day over day.”
This covered the base grant reduction, but the transportation grant cut was so steep that some bus drivers, who are contracted by Southland Transportation, will be laid off as a result of school board’s reduction in funding for those purposes.
Dwayne Zarichny, the separate board’s superintendent, says MHCBE found savings in a similar manner to plug the $342,000 hole in their budget.
“Once we understood the number we would have to reduce our budget by, we took a look at the expenses we would normally incur if schools were running normally, but now aren’t going to have to experience,” he said.
Administration did this by going “line-by-line through the budget,” finding “significant savings” from utility expenses and supplies at each school.
“Even though we had budgeted for them, we’re not experiencing them, so we were able to redeploy them to cover the reduction to our budget,” said Zarichny.
The situation with PRSD is a bit more complicated, since CUPE only represents its custodians in Redcliff.
The rural board is addressing the cuts through 40 layoffs, mainly comprising of educational assistants with some custodians, in addition to savings like the city public and separate boards found, according to superintendent Roger Clarke.
This included the voluntary layoff of a custodian at I.F. Cox School, one of eight CUPE members at Redcliff’s three schools, he says.
“We have employees who are willing to be part of the solution and part of the solution is layoffs,” said Clarke. “Everyone’s pulling together and dealing with a difficult situation. They are doing incredible work supporting our students in their home. The work is real valuable, ongoing and we’re being very attentive to it to ensure it’s being done effectively.”