Moe says cash-strapped Sask. schools shouldn’t introduce new fees

The Premier said schools should instead draw on cash reserves to make up the deficit; school boards say they already have and can’t anymore.

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Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said school divisions shouldn’t introduce new fees for parents, arguing they should instead draw on cash reserves, some built up during the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Moe’s criticism comes days after the board of Saskatoon Public Schools passed a budget that includes a $100 per student fee for lunch-hour supervision, a measure the board said was necessary because of years of insufficient provincial funding.

Regina Public Schools have charged such a lunchtime fee since 2018. Regina Catholic Schools also passed a budget including a new lunchtime supervision fee. Those divisions and others plan to cut services, something the Saskatchewan School Boards Association says is a consequence of provincial cash flow not keeping up with new expenses and inflation.

Moe argued, though, that some divisions are sitting on substantial cash reserves that they should dig deeper into before they pass the cost on to parents.

“Before a school division is going to charge parents additional dollars for noon-hour recess … they most certainly should look at using some of the reserves that have been going in the last number of years as opposed to sending out invoices to parents,” Moe said at Saskatoon’s airport on Friday moments after returning from a trade mission to the United States.

Moe noted many divisions saw a bump in those reserves during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the federal and provincial governments injected more cash into schools.

“I would agree that it’s not sustainable,” Moe said when asked about how that would work in the long run. “But if they’re looking at invoicing parents, they should look at using reserves previous to doing that.”

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“I don’t think you can say that invoicing parents is a long-term solution as well.”

‘$3.49 per student’

Saskatchewan School Boards Association President Shawn Davidson said Moe’s comments reflect a “fundamental misunderstanding” about reserves and the fiscal position of the province’s schools.

“While it is true that some school divisions have cash reserves. .. not every division has them. And Saskatoon public happens to be one of the divisions that’s already drawn their reserves down in the last few years,” Davidson said.

“They don’t have that luxury. There are boards that do. Those boards are largely doing exactly that.”

Davidson said ample government spending in the early and mid-2010s did help school divisions generally rack up some savings. But for the past six to seven years, he said, new spending hasn’t kept place with inflation and rising costs.

Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools, for example, announced Friday it is facing a $3-million shortfall in operating costs.

While on-paper spending is up, that division says virtually all of the $3.85 million in extra money it received will go to increasing teacher salaries under a provincially brokered collective agreement. It said the change in per student funding was just 0.03 per cent, or about $3.49 per student.

“With a provincial funding increase that does not recognize significant inflationary increases, status-quo budgeting was not possible this year,” reads an agenda package for a meeting next week. The division declined to release the full operating budget before that meeting.

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Matt Love, the Saskatchewan NDP critic for education, added some reserves can’t be used to cover operating costs. Saskatoon Public Schools, for example, had just under $10 million in total reserves as of Aug. 31, 2021.

But less than $4 million of that was discretionary surplus that could be used for operating expenses. The board faced a deficit of $4.5 million this year.

“The way I interpret that is, they’re avoiding accountability for their own underfunding of education,” Love said of government. “They’re pointing the finger at schools.”

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