The province has been touting its distance learning model, but it is costing local school divisions and contributing to budget shortfalls.
The Prairie Valley School Division (PVSD) said that one of the factors contributing to their budget shortfall is approximately $600,000 in unexpected costs related to the newly formed Saskatchewan Distance Learning Centre (Sask DLC).
Janet Kotylak, PVSD board chair, said the newly introduced system is causing a significant amount of unexpected fees which is impacting them as they are setting their budget and trying to use resources that are spread too thin.
“We’re using our limited reserves to fund $600,000 for distance learning. We typically only have about 110 courses that our students take through distance learning, but the government has taken $600,000 off the top of our grant to fund over 1,300 courses,” said Kotylak. “So, it’s having a profound impact on our overall budget.”
When it comes to the Sask DLC, the government is paying roughly $23 million in costs to fund the system, while school divisions pay a per class per student fee of $500 dollars.
She said the government is estimating Prairie Valley students will enroll in 1,315 part time online high school credit courses with the new system, compared to the annual average of 110 courses.
Kotyak said that number is overinflated and was told the government would reconcile. The school division has not been told when that will happen but thinks it can occur in the fall.
“They haven’t told us they will fully refund us and the problem with that is we are planning for staffing now (and) we’re planning for our courses now,” she said. “We are really short of funding because of the way that they have funded education since 2015-2016. So, we can’t afford to be without that $600,000 to plan for the fall.”
Kotyak said the province decreased its preventative maintenance and renewal funding which means they fall short on mental health supports.
“There wasn’t a lot of consultation with school divisions, and I think that this needs to be relook(ed),” she said. “There is always going to be some need for some online learning, but we need to focus on teachers teaching kids in our classrooms. That’s where they have the most success.”
The Saskatchewan Ministry of Education said in an email that the Sask DLC will receive funding through a combination of tuition revenue from school divisions for the number of courses students are enrolled in and a grant from the province.
“School divisions will continue to receive funding for local students that are accessing courses through the Sask DLC. This will allow students to access local supports and activities, as well as access driver’s licence training, graduation ceremonies and extra-curricular activities,” the statement read.
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“PVSD will pay estimated tuition to the Sask DLC of $1,114,500 and have $1,434,500 in additional funds available based on revenue received from the ministry and avoiding costs of operating their existing online school. This results in an additional $320,000 available to support students.”
The Ministry of Education stated they have committed to developing a reconciliation process that will ensure school divisions will be charged for the actual number of online courses taken by students at the Sask DLC.
In a recent interview with Saskatchewan education minister, Dustin Duncan, he said the new distance learning method will actually save school boards money.
“Based on our estimates in terms of the number of classes that will be taken across the province and public school divisions, right now we think it is about $13 million (in savings) for the public system alone,” Duncan said.
For Kotylak, she doesn’t see where the savings are coming from when they must pay a student fee for each course.
The launch of the distance learning centre has had one positive effect, with over 500 people applying to work there.
Saskatchewan schools prepare for distance learning
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