Louis Riel division leader blasts racism in budget session
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The Louis Riel School Division leader called out community members opposed to funding anti-racism initiatives when he revealed the contents of the 2023-24 draft budget, which relies on dwindling surplus dollars for core operating costs, this week.
During a public meeting on Tuesday, trustees and senior staffers shared their spending proposal for the coming school year, the feedback that informed budgeting priorities, and ongoing financial constraints.
The $221.5-million budget focuses on essential activities and deferred maintenance while planning for continued enrolment growth with the addition of 46 full-time equivalent teachers, 65 educational assistants, six clinicians, five support staff and 12 bus routes.
Citing surging inflation and pandemic-related pressures, officials indicated there is little room for new projects, but they want to bolster summer programming by adding two educational camp sites.
The summer program is an “equity-based program” designed to keep children engaged in numeracy, literacy and social activities over the summer. It is one element of divisions’s commitment to resourcing diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism projects.
“We want our children to be anti-racist because you’re either a racist, or you’re an anti-racist. I repeat: ‘You’re either a racist, or you’re an anti-racist, there is no other option,’ and that’s at the heart of the DEI initiative,” superintendent Christian Michalik told a room filled with roughly 75 people who showed up to hear the budget presentation.
Michalik shared several comments on spending priorities collected from the public via an online polling platform in recent months. The most popular thoughts among the roughly 1,300 users who weighed in touted the importance of “reasonable class sizes” and adequate staffing to address students’ rising academic and behavioural needs.
While noting the overwhelming majority of participants disclosed that they value efforts to Indigenize education, Michalik made a point of sharing, and challenging, one comment that criticized the division for “wasting money on anti-racism bureaucrats.”
“Our children are not racist,” the anonymous user wrote. “Spend money on educating children, not inventing problems.”
Creating an anti-racist culture in schools promotes critical thinking, improves belonging and as a result, contributes to academic success, Michalik said.
Grade 12 student Gloria Jaison said she and her peers want to study in classrooms where they can personally identify with teachers who share their lived experiences.
The 18-year-old said she appreciated the superintendent backing the division’s anti-racism strategy, which includes a demographic survey of staff and community members to better align the two through future hiring.
“It is the bare minimum, but the fact it’s actually being pushed compared to what we’ve been doing in the past years, it’s a great big step. I’m not going to be here next year, but I’m hoping to see more movement, more steps, more action (for the next generation),” Jaison said.
The division has earmarked about $850,000 for Indigenous education and diversity, equity, and inclusion supplies and services next year.
Louis Riel anticipates increasing overall spending on supplies and services, including transportation and infrastructure repairs, by 14 per cent. Staff salaries and benefits, which account for 84 per cent of expenses, are projected to increase slightly.
In addition to setting money aside for equity projects and addressing increased student needs amid a pandemic, secretary-treasurer Jamie Rudnicki said bigger price tags on everything from electricity to software had to be accounted for.
The board has calculated its provincial funding increase to be six per cent, although it puts that figure at just under four per cent when factoring the limitations on raising local property taxes for the coming year.
Trustee Chris Sigurdson said consecutive years of austerity and a funding shortfall has prompted the division to plan for the extraordinary step of using $2.4 million in emergency savings to pay for fundamental operations.
The accumulated surplus, which is the product of 20 years of saving profits from international student and adult education services, is projected to be $10.1 million at the end of the current school year. It is typically reserved for one-time upgrades to buildings and unplanned expenses.
“Unprecedented times and pressures require an unprecedented response, “ said Sigurdson, vice-chairman of the board, noting the division is slated to have an operating deficit for the first time in history.
“It’s very, very important that you all understand that this is not sustainable; we cannot be dipping into that surplus year after year, or we’ll soon run out,” he said.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.