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Elementary school emphasizes funding constraints

Watson Lake's children are in desperate need of some help, says NDP candidate Liard McMillan. The Liard First Nation chief has raised the issue before, to no avail.

Watson Lake’s children are in desperate need of some help, says NDP candidate Liard McMillan.

The Liard First Nation chief has raised the issue before, to no avail.

The Johnson Elementary School has been half-closed for more than three years.

“Staff members are forced to add more students to classrooms, use hallways as teaching space and put administrators in old closets just to cope with the lack of space,” he said.

Territory-wide cutbacks have led to high student-to-teacher ratios, he added.

“Some kids that are in Grades 3 and 4 right now are not even able to have proper speech, let alone reading and writing. And this is much to the frustration or chagrin of the teaching staff within the elementary school.

“I think they work damn hard to try and meet the needs of the children, but if they have one child that has behavioural issues or is lagging behind, then they have to focus on that child at the cost of the entire classroom, because it’s not like they have an extra (teaching assistant) kicking around, or they can take this child out of the classroom and do one-on-one time with the child.”

On top of the elementary school’s problems, the community’s daycare doesn’t have enough money to pay its bills, said McMillan.

“The base amount, from the subsidies that they receive from government, are insufficient to pay staff, let alone pay rent on a building or ongoing O and M costs, like heat and power. They’ve had to cut back.”

For example, the daycare can’t accept children younger than 13 months, he said, pointing out a lag-time between when most maternity leaves end and when this daycare becomes available.

It was the lack of daycare services that eventually led to McMillan’s own wife and daughter moving to Whitehorse two years ago.

“At that time there was no daycare,” he said. “It was really the community and the volunteers that made the daycare happen. It wasn’t because of any adequate level of assistance from the government. It was basically fundraising efforts and volunteer efforts and basically almost pinching every penny to make it happen. Otherwise they wouldn’t even have a daycare.”

McMillan’s wife is an elementary school teacher.

“Johnson Elementary School lost a damn good teacher,” he said.

The Department of Education has confirmed the oldest wing of the school, which was built in 1964, did close after a roof failure three years ago.

But it isn’t required because the newer wing, built in 1979, has a capacity for 251 students, said Chris Madden from the department.

The school’s current enrolment is approximately 114 students, he added.

“All students in all grades have a designated classroom and all teachers who require office space have appropriate office space,” he said.

“Closets are used for storage.”

And when it comes to the number of teachers, those decisions are made by a yearly “staffing allocation formula designed to ensure staff resources are distributed fairly among all schools,” he said. “The number of teachers deployed across Yukon has not changed.”

The number of educational assistants does fluctuate over time, Madden confirmed.

“It is based on the needs identified in the students’ individual education plans.

“Johnson Elementary School has seven EAs allocated to it in 2011/12.”

As for the daycare, it receives two different types of funding each year, said Pat Living, spokesperson for Health and Social Services.

Money for operation costs, like rent and bills, is calculated from a formula based on the number of kids and the types of services needed for them. For example, younger kids need more extensive services.

In 2010/11, the Watson Lake daycare received $3,109.

The government also gives subsidies to low-income parents. These funds go directly to the daycare.

In 2010/11 the Watson Lake daycare received $19,835.

“We don’t pay 100 per cent of daycare,” Living said. “It’s not meant to cover all the costs, it’s only meant to help.”

The government also helps subsidize daycare staff wages, depending on how much training they have received.

This training is available, through distance education from Yukon College and many other Canadian Universities, she said.

It’s not enough, said McMillan, who lives mainly in Watson Lake, without his wife and daughter.

“It’s not only tragic for me and my family, but it’s tragic for the community,” he said. “It’s a determining factor for nurses at the hospital or even RCMP who have young kids. It’s hard to keep professionals in the community.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at