Education minister responds to opposition claims of reductions

STRAIT AREA: Despite two separate education concerns being aired last week by Nova Scotia’s Progressive Conservative and New Democratic parties, the education minister says it’s important for parents, students and staff to be basing their opinions on fact rather than rumours.

Last Tuesday, the official opposition issued a release on the rumoured cuts to early childhood inclusion, which was followed the day after by claiming the Options and Opportunities (O2) Program’s funding was projected to be cut by 70 per cent.

The timing of the releases comes as a surprise to Zach Churchill, the province’s education minister, as he announced on May 2 students across the province will have access to 173 more inclusive education specialists, teachers and non-teaching staff this September.

“There must have been some kind of communication mishap there, because I’m perplexed as to why they made this release,” Churchill told The Reporter on May 7. “There has been a net increase in approximately 170 people in the system and a net increase of $44 million, which is going to help every single region of the province.”

He said his department tries to ensure that every person in the system and every dollar spent is having the greatest impact on the student body experience, and in the Strait Regional Centre for Education (SRCE), 13.5 full-time inclusion positions were announced during his recent funding announcement.

“Positions and staffing in our school does change from year to year but that’s simply because of changes to enrollment and/or meeting the needs of those kids in those school changes,” Churchill explained.

Looking at the numbers from the department, there are only seven positions from one end of the province to the other that are being impacted because of enrollment decline.

In the past year, six new school psychology and speech pathologists positions were created in the province and those six individuals were able to reach an additional 700 students.

“We’re really expanding the non-teaching supports in our system, we’re not fixing all the challenges overnight, we know that’s not the case,” Churchill said. “But we’re really making milestones and consequential advances in approving the education experiences for our students, making sure the students have the support that they need and the teachers are doing what they do best, teaching.”

A representative with the department confirmed there are no projected cuts to educational programs and the O2 Program will continue to be available to students, as it always has.

“Regions are in the very beginning stages of their budgeting processes,” Chrissy Matheson said. “Throughout the next several weeks they will take a look at their enrollment and student need… We know the Options and Opportunities Program is incredibly valuable.”

The SRCE also wanted to assure parents, students and staff that all schools in the SRCE that offer the O2 program this year will continue to offer it in 2019-20.

“There have been no changes to the delivery of the program, no funding reductions and there are no changes for students for the 2019-2020 school year,” Deanna Gillis, the SRCE’s coordinator of communications said on May 10. “In terms of the number of students enrolled in the program, I can tell you that in this school year, 2018-2019, there are 294 Grades 10 to 12 students in the 02 Program.”

Eight schools in the SRCE will continue to offer the O2 program in 2019-20; Cape Breton Highlands Education Centre, Dalbrae Academy, Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional High School, East Antigonish Education Centre, Inverness Education Centre, Richmond Education Centre, St. Mary’s Education Centre, and the Strait Area Education and Recreation Centre.

On top of the inclusion supports that they’ve hired, Churchill is extremely proud of the approximately 1,000 new teachers have been hired into the system, resulting in the highest teacher to student ratio and the smallest class sizes Nova Scotia has ever had.