In an ironic twist on the popular TV series Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? the Yukon government has created a new reality show called Are You Smarter than a Kestrel?
This week’s contestants were Elijah Smith Elementary School and Whitehorse Elementary School, both of whom were soundly trounced by the wily kestrel. (For those who don’t know, kestrels are Yukon raptors who, according the excellent Birds of the Yukon Territory, can be “aggressive” and may “dive-bomb intruders.”)
The confrontation was provoked by the kestrels who, branching out from their usual fare of frogs and small mammals, have begun preying upon the Yukon government budget.
The result of the contest was that the kestrels and their animal friends got a new $1.929-million barn and animal rehabilitation centre at the Game Farm. They will also have 1.5 full-time government staff, while the staffrooms of Elijah Smith and Whitehorse Elementary will be reduced by an equal amount (Elijah Smith contributing half a person and Whitehorse Elementary the rest).
Hyperbole? The cold, hard facts are that in Premier Dennis Fentie’s budget the new “rehabilitation centre and barn” will get almost $2 million plus 1.5 staff. Meanwhile the Department of Education plans to cut 1.5 staff at the two schools.
In defence of the rehabilitation centre and barn, it has to be noted that, according to the Yukon News, the Yukon Wildlife Preserve treated 17 animals in 2009 and 2010. These included the kestrels of course, but also a lynx with a concussion, and a baby elk. The 751 students at Elijah Smith and Whitehorse Elementary will be able to do field trips to the centre and learn about the activities of its staff.
In boring bureaucratic terms, the cabinet allocated just a 1.1 per cent increase to the public schools branch in the 2010/11 budget, below the rate of inflation. And the branch, after stinging criticism by the auditor general, has brought in a new formula to allocate its existing staff among schools.
On the one hand, it is good that the branch finally has a formula that makes it clear how staff will be allocated. The branch has been criticized for years for its opaque decision-making, and there was a widespread impression in the Yukon that lobbying and relationships with senior bureaucrats were the way to get more resources for your school.
On the other hand, the new formula has some strange outcomes, at least according to draft Department of Education documents floating around town.
Who would have guessed it was a good idea to take staff away from Elijah Smith, with its large First Nation student body and challenging number of Individual Education Plans? Kwanlin Dun leaders, as well as First Nation parents in Teslin, must be wondering whether the public schools branch really will be able to live up to its “New Horizons” talk while simultaneously cutting staff at their schools.
The cuts are even broader, in fact. Takhini, Selkirk, Jack Hulland, Whitehorse Elementary, Elijah Smith and Christ the King all lose staff. These are the big Whitehorse elementary schools where roughly half the Yukon’s elementary students are educated. Some people won’t shed tears for Catholic Christ the King or French immersion Whitehorse Elementary, since both are reputed to have less challenging student bodies. But one wonders why cutting staff at Takhini, Elijah Smith or Selkirk strikes anyone as a good idea.
The two biggest high schools, FH Collins and Porter Creek, also face cuts.
Why? The formula is weighted against big schools and French immersion. An elementary school with 100 students will get 5.5 teachers (not counting auxiliary staff), for example. Elijah Smith has 3.3 times more students, but will get just 2.8 times more teachers. This costs Elijah Smith about 2.5 teachers.
French immersion school Whitehorse Elementary, meanwhile, would get 1.12 more teachers if it switched to being an English school next September. And FH Collins gets no extra staff for having both English and French immersion streams.
Of course, there are winners too. Ecole Emilie Tremblay, which already had the lowest student/educator ratio in Whitehorse, is the biggest winner with 2.35 new staff. Grey Mountain (one educator) and Holy Family (0.7) are the next biggest recipients, with schools in some of the communities getting smaller increases.
The government got an extra $34 million from Ottawa this year but is giving less than a $1-million increase to public schools, which will hardly cover inflation. It’s a zero-sum game, pitting school against school, since the cabinet has decided not to increase education staffing overall.
Unfortunately, this isn’t likely to change. The president of the teachers’ union and some department staff have been vocal in support of the new formula. In the teachers’ union newsletter, their president warns the formula must not be “tinkered with.”
It is strange to see the education establishment united in the opinion that public schools do not need more resources. Parents who read the drop-out statistics or complain about waiting months for special needs assessments may disagree.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s