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'Taking money from the schools'
School boards decry 'free' junior kindergarten plan; say money will come out of their budgets

Cody Punter
Northern News Services
Published Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A plan to have free junior kindergarten across the territory in three years may have parents jumping for joy, but the heads of Yellowknife's school boards are concerned existing classrooms will suffer for it.

NNSL photo/graphic

Katherine Watkins, executive director of Kids Corner Child Care, reads some books with Lexi Blandford, 3, and True Hunter, 4. Watkins is worried that territory-wide free junior kindergarten will hurt her business. - Cody Punter/NNSL photo

The plan, which was presented during the unveiling of the territorial budget last week, called for free junior kindergarten to be phased in gradually, beginning with the territory's 29 smallest communities in 2014 and ending with Yellowknife in 2016. This would lower the age at which children are sent to school to four.

Rather than give additional funding to pay for the territory-wide initiative - expected to cost $7.2 million over three years - the government said it will be reallocating the money from school board budgets.

Yk1 had an accumulated surplus of $1.69 million in 2013; the Catholic district is expecting an accumulated surplus of $700,000 this year. Both school board budgets are showing deficits for this year.

"The government has said, 'We think this is a good idea, but we're not going to pay for it,'" said Yellowknife Catholic school board chair Simon Taylor.

"It's a good program, it's a good idea to have free kindergarten, but they are taking money from the schools to do it."

"We're 100 per cent behind it ... but put some money on it," added John Stephenson, chair of Yellowknife Education District No. 1.

Education Minister Jackson Lafferty said over the three-year period in which the program is being implemented, some school boards will see an increase in funding while others "will experience a net loss of no more than 1.5 per cent of their overall school contribution."

Of those schools in Yellowknife that will lose funding over three years are Yellowknife Catholic Schools ($214,000) and Yk1 ($62,000), while the French school district ($104,000), Dettah education authority ($14,000) and Ndilo education authority ($91,000) will see increases.

Those amounts do not account for the increase in class sizes which will come as a result of making junior kindergarten free.

There are currently a total of 150 4 year-olds enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs at with the Catholic school board and YK1

Both boards said they are expecting a combined 100 to 120 additional students in 2016.

He added that Yk1 and the Catholic board already provide pre-kindergarten programs for four-year-olds, which is paid for through user fees that range from $600 to $750 a month depending on the program.

Taylor said the Catholic school board alone is expecting between 50 to 60 additional students in 2016.

Laferty said because the government's contributions to school boards are based on enrollment, they would receive additional funding if more students began attending the school.

Taylor added Yk1 and the Catholic board already provide pre-kindergarten programs for four-year-olds, which is paid for through user fees that range from $600 to $900 a month, depending on the school and program.

Taylor said the loss of fees as a result of implementing free kindergarten would hurt the schools.

When asked by Yellowknife Centre MLA Robert Hawkins where that money would be coming from during Monday's sitting of the legislative assembly, Lafferty said the government is considering either increasing the pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) or using money from the school boards' surpluses to pay for the influx of new junior kindergarten students.

The minister said the current PTR in most schools is 13 to one. However, the government is legislated to have it as high as 16 to one.

Neither of those options is acceptable to Taylor.

He pointed out the PTR is a guideline which determines funding rather than an actual ratio of students to teachers.

"The ratio is not related to class size," said Taylor. "That money pays for principals, janitors, gym teachers, everything."

Meanwhile, the schools depend on surpluses in order to fund everything from special needs programs to training for teachers, said Taylor.

"All sorts of things get covered by that very contingency. We spend that every year," he said.

"It's the kids right now that are funding this and I think that's wrong."

School boards are not the only ones concerned about the costs of starting school at age four. Katherine Watkins, executive director of Kids Corner Childcare, said she has noticed a 25 per cent decline in enrolment since some Yellowknife schools began offering pre-kindergarten in 2010.

She said she is worried that offering free junior kindergarten in Yellowknife will further hurt her business.

The minister said his department has consulted with daycare operators, and plans to encourage them to cater toward one to three year-olds to offset the cost of losing four year-olds by handing out a lump sum of $780 to daycares to convert each space for four-year olds to better accomondate toddlers.

Watkins said that is not nearly enough money to cover the increase in costs as she would also have to hire new staff. She said territorial legislation states the ratio

of children to guardians is eight to one for four year-olds, six to one for two year-olds and four to one for one year-olds.

"You can only have a certain number of younger ones. You couldn't have eight two year-olds or three-year-olds," said Watkins.

The department is also proposing $511,000 worth of subsidies to top off the wages of childcare professionals.

Lafferty said the territory's 120 early childhood care workers will receive wage tops-ups of $2 an hour, while additional incentives will be given to those who have post-secondary degrees and diplomas.

Watkins said the subsidy was a welcome announcement - however, she pointed out it was difficult to get post-secondary certification in the North.

"You could take 10 or 20 years just to take the courses that you need for certification," she said.

"There is no decent certification program for daycare or preschool in the Northwest Territories."

- with files from Candace Thomson

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