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Junior kindergarten questions linger
School boards bring funding worries to legislative assembly standing committee

Kirsten Fenn
Northern News Services
Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Representatives from Yellowknife's three school boards reiterated their concern to MLAs on Thursday night that while junior kindergarten will be a valuable program, it should not come at the cost of other educational programming and staff.

NNSL photo/graphic

Commission Scolaire Francophone superintendent Yvonne Careen, left, Yellowknife Education District No. 1 chairperson John Stephenson and Yellowknife Catholic Schools chairperson Miles Welsh address MLAs during a public hearing with the Standing Committee on Social Development on Thursday night at the Legislative Assembly. - Kirsten Fenn/NNSL photo

"Junior kindergarten will be good for kids, will be good for parents, will be good for schools. It's a good thing," Yellowknife Education District No. 1 (Yk1) chairperson John Stephenson told the legislative assembly's Standing Committee on Social Development during a public meeting Thursday night.

"But our number-one comment that we've made ever since this was first rolled out was that it was deserving of the full resources that was needed to pay for the cost of the program," he said.

Stephenson was one of nearly 30 people from the city's three school boards, the Northwest Territories Teachers' Association and the NWT Montessori Society who packed into a committee room at the legislative assembly last week to share their opinions on the issue.

The Department of Education, Culture and Employment announced last week that implementing junior kindergarten next year for four-year-olds across the territory would come at a cost of approximately $5.1 million. The program is to be free and optional for parents.

The department pledged to give school boards $2 million to that end, but has left it up to the boards to scrape together the remaining $3.1 million from their own budgets.

"The impact will be significant and it will be felt," Stephenson told the committee.

He and Yellowknife Catholic Schools board chair Miles Welsh, along with Commission Scolaire Francophone des Territories du Nord-Ouest superintendent Yvonne Careen, urged MLAs on the committee to halt implementation of other new education initiatives until new money is available.

Instead, they said, the government should continue funding current programs that have been clawed back over the years.

They said NWT school boards have been historically underfunded and want the government to also increase funding for teacher salaries and decrease the student-teacher ratio from 16 students per teacher to better reflect the Canadian average of 13.

A letter provided to school board chairs just hours before the committee meeting provided at least a glimmer of hope that the department had heard their cries for help.

Welsh announced at the committee meeting that he had received a letter from Education Minister Alfred Moses that hinted the government could be putting $1.3 million in funding back into an inclusive schooling initiative for students with special needs that was reduced from school board budgets in 2012 and 2016.

While Mackenzie Delta MLA Frederick Blake Jr. told school representatives he shared many of their concerns, Sahtu MLA Daniel McNeely questioned how difficult it would be for school boards to come up with their approximately $3.1 million share of funding for junior kindergarten.

"Teachers are being pressured to do more and more with less resources," Stephenson replied.

Although he said it would be achievable to find the $3.1 million, school districts would be forced to make tough decisions about what to prioritize in their budgets.

NWT Montessori Society president David Wasylciw also had a chance at the speaker's table. Despite the fact talks on junior kindergarten have been swirling around for two years, he said there are still "so many unanswered questions."

The Montessori Society offers programming for children between the ages of two-and-a-half and four-years old.

During a meeting with parents a few weeks ago, Wasylciw said families raised concerns that junior kindergarten won't truly be optional if there are no other free programs available.

They also expressed worry about how junior kindergarten class sizes would affect students with special needs, and what impact the program will have on older students if the price of implementing it means taking funds away from older students' education.

"That's a really difficult situation to be in, because parents just don't know," Wasylciw said.

"And what nobody wants to hear is, 'Well, we'll see what happens in September.'"

With school board collective agreements that focus on improving teacher well-being and workloads having wrapped up recently, putting further pressure on school resources would go against the deals the Northwest Territories Teachers' Association (NWTTA) has just signed, said association president Fraser Oliver.

"It seems like we're being asked to do more with less," he said.

"So the NWTTA supports the implementation of junior kindergarten for all schools in the start of the 2017-18 school year - as long as it's fully funded and it's not detrimental to any other programs in our schools and does not lead to teacher layoffs."

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