Cost-saving measures announced last week by Seine River School Division, are not sitting well with all staff.
On Friday, the division announced that effective immediately, it is instituting a hiring freeze for all school-based vacancies, prioritizing internal reassignments or transfers before hiring additional staff across the division. Non-essential expenditures across schools and departments will also be scaled back. In addition, the division will introduce a fee-for-services model, beginning in January, for their K-4 busing program and their Kids At Play (KAP) program.
Christine Francey is an Educational Assistant (EA) at Richer School. She also happens to be President of Manitoba Government and General Employees Union (MGEU) 145, representing EAs. Francey says she has concerns about what these changes mean for EAs, especially because the division is not committing to calling in a substitute every time an EA is unable to make a shift.
Teresa Hampton is Assistant Superintendent of Student Services for the division. She confirms that under these changes, there are different thresholds for each school. However, in some cases, a substitute EA will only be called in once there are at least three EAs missing on a particular day. That means in that scenario, there would be three EAs missing and only one substitute called in.
"This leaves the kids really in not great shape," says Francey. "We have concerns because we are already working in a lot of schools with less EA coverage than we've had in the past."
Francey says what will likely happen is that a substitute EA will probably work with a student who has a greater need or is dangerous to leave alone.
"So, then those kids who would just need an EA for academic work, they will be without the EA to help them get through their classes," she adds.
Francey says there are definitely scenarios where a single EA will not be able to attempt to cover the responsibilities of three. She says it is already a struggle with the number of students needing attention, noting there could be five or six kids in a classroom who just need help academically, but are all relying on the same EA.
Francey says to the best of her knowledge, there has been no indication that a student might be asked to stay home from school if their EA is not in, or a parent called in to volunteer. Rather, she says school administration or other staff will be asked to help out in those situations.
As union President, Francey says she is hearing from other EAs who are really worried about these changes.
"We're already overworked and now add to it having to do the job of another EA while you are doing your own job is pretty difficult," she adds.
Francey suggests there is a lot of money being spent on wages at the top end of a school division. She notes Seine River EAs finally went through their negotiations last year and received quite a significant increase in wages. However, Francey says they are now doing double the work as a result.
"It's very frustrating," she adds. "We are worried, we could be hurt, kids could be hurt. And maybe it should be taken from the top end where people are getting raises that are what an EA makes for an entire year."
According to Francey, the top wage for an EA in Seine River School Division is $24.98 per hour. She suggests this is average for EAs when compared to other divisions. However, she points out that they only work six hours per day and 10 months a year. Also, she says they are not paid for all Professional Development days or holidays.
Meanwhile, Annette Lyss is a Library Technician at Arborgate School in La Broquerie. She is also President of MGEU 144, representing library technicians and school secretaries.
"We are already understaffed in many of our schools, especially with our Educational Assistants," says Lyss. "We're already having a hard time finding coverage when people are away and now, they are saying that we are not even going to be looking for subs unless there are more than three people away."
Lyss says this will have a ripple effect, noting as a Library Technician she may be told to be a substitute in a classroom because there are no subs available. But then if the division is not covering her position, it could be that they will have to cancel library.
"So, it becomes a lot of shuffling and a lot of shoveling and a lot of stress for the staff which of course the children feed off of," adds Lyss.
She notes one of her concerns is how all of this will impact children who only require a little bit of additional support.
"So, the kids that are quiet, kids that behave, but need some extra support, are going to be falling through the cracks," she points out. "Because if you are quiet and you are behaving, you are not going to get the attention that you need."
Not only that, but Lyss is also concerned for the safety of both students and staff. She says some children act out in a violent manner through no fault of their own. Lyss says if there is not the proper EA coverage for these children, there will be children and staff that suffer as a result.
According to Lyss, these changes were only made known to staff at the same time as they were presented to the public. She notes this is surprising, considering it is standard practice for the division to meet with different education groups prior to making a large announcement like this.
Lyss says, on the one hand, she can see where the division is coming from in making these changes. However, she suggests that the timing, especially in the fee-for-services changes, could have been better. Lyss says if the division knew at the start of the school year that finances were tight, it should have instituted these changes then already. She notes many parents took advantage of the services because they were free and as a result made alternate plans such as finding a part-time job.
"It makes it hard for them to try to plan anything now," adds Lyss. "They could possibly have made those different plans back in September, had they known that they were going to have to pay for these things."
Lyss encourages the division to stop spending money on things that have nothing to do with the education of children and to rather use that money on the front lines.
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