Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Unpent JK-3 dollars to be revealed

The other 'B-memo' posted on July 20 I wanted to write about here was in regards to unused cash granted to school boards for the implementation of the primary class size initiative, aka the JK-3 class cap. Memo B-9 directs boards to provide the Ministry of Education with a full accounting on what unspent grant money they have remaining in their reserve accounts.
First, some history:
The JK-3 class cap was the main part of the Liberals' 2003 election education platform. The party committed to reducing class sizes in junior kindergarten through Grade 3 classrooms to a 20:1 student:teacher ratio. After election, the government started pouring dollars into the program under two streams-- one to pay for the teachers required to lower student-teacher ratios and the other to help boards build new classrooms in schools where there wasn't enough existing physical classroom space to simply setup another JK-3 class.
As the program reached full rollout, the policy was clarified and a 10 per cent buffer was added-- meaning 90 per cent of all JK-3 classes must have 20 or fewer students. The other 10 per cent can have up to but no more than 23. This flexibility -- at the time labelled by the opposition PCs as the Liberals abandoning a full class-size cap -- would help boards deal with situations that arise when a school either doesn't have the space or staff to create a new class when student number 21 walks in the door. You can verify how your board has done in achieving this through the ministry's class-size tracker.
What the PCS initiative has done in reality is lead to the creation of many, many more split-grade classrooms. If a cohort is 26 students in Grade 2, the school ends up with either a full Grade 2 and a split 1/2 or a split 1/2 and a split 2/3 depending on the cohort sizes in the other grades. In some smaller (either physically or by declining enrolment) schools, the cohorts are so small most of the PCS work happened naturally. We have a number of schools in my coverage area where grade cohorts are in the single-digit-per-grade range, making it easy to hit the 20:1 ratio without extra staffing or space. Like other similar issues, some parents are very passionate supporters or detractors of split-grade classes. I spent most of my elementary years in a split-grade class and turned out, I think, OK, so I have no particular like or dislike for them.
Much of the PCS capital grant money was used in the following ways:
  • To make small additions of two or three classrooms to existing schools
  • To help cover the cost of new-school construction -- either in growth areas or as a result of consolidation or closure
From the memo:
It is noteworthy that in most cases, the complex and numerous capital projects that were required have been completed and that elementary students in all grades were supported in good places to learn and with minimal disruption. School boards, and in particular their capital and facility staff, are to be congratulated on this positive outcome.
A school board's actual need for PCS capital funds may be less than the amount originally allocated to the board. School board reporting... indicates that a number of boards have not fully used their PCS capital allocation. This is not surprising as primary enrolment has continued to decline in many boards since the PCS capital allocations were provided and because some PCS capital accommodations have been met without the need to spend PCS capital funding.
Ministry capital portfolio analysts will be in touch with board staff to confirm the following:
  • PCS related capital projects and expenditures that have been completed and entered into the SFIS system and/or reported in EFIS.
  • PCS capital expenditures that need to be long-term financed in upcoming OFA debenture issues.
  • PCS capital projects planned by the board including expected timing and the amount of PCS capital to be used.
Interesting. The memo doesn't actually come out and say any unused dollars will be clawed back, but it spends a few paragraphs on the early learning report issued in June. It also, in bold, reminds boards they can't spend that money without a board vote and approval under the ministry's capital-project approval process.
My guess? Unused PCS capital will be either frozen or clawed back and added to the pot for any construction needed to house full-day kindergarten.


RetDir said...

It does look like an impending claw back, although it will probably be evidenced in decreased future grants rather than actually taking money away from boards (remember spec ed reserves?). In many boards, the biggest costs for PCS weren't capital costs, but staffing costs. Boards with a lot of small schools were hit particularly hard in this regard, as implementing the cap often meant creating very small classes. While the concept of the cap was quite popular (election ploy?), it's actual impact on whatever variables of student well being you wish to choose will be interesting to examine at some point down the road. The research on the impact of reducing class size on students is quite ambivalent, until classes get very small indeed, or teaching methods change in response to the lower numbers of students in those classes. Unions probably have the most accurate read on this one - fewer students = less work for teachers. There are many better ways in which this money could have been spent.
On another note, I have enjoyed following these articles, and have decided to start contributing to the responses. I am a retired director of education, and will therefore be viewed with some suspicion by some (perhaps most) of the contributors here (with the possible exception of the person who argued for no community consultation when closing schools!). I am looking forward to the ongoing discussions.

Anonymous said...

We've heard this all before.
Remember back in their first mandate those Spec. Ed. clawbacks?

The same scenario is brewing here I assume.

The government has to find some savings to pay for those other promises left over from their first campaign.

They can disguise it all they like but Shhhh....I think we're on to them ER.

Re: split-grades vs. straight grade

A good teacher can teach either. I do understand that split grades require more teachers though...so maybe the cap size was about something other than doing what's best for kids?

We have a school with triple splits but were advised by the board director at the time to expect this. Whether communities liked it or not didn't matter.

The unions liked it and that is precisely what the gov't wanted.

RetDir said...

Teachers tend not to like triple grades - but they have to happen in some instances where schools get too small to operate otherwise. Most boards tried to avoid them by overstaffing at the beginning, but have now stopped doing so, as it is a logical consequence of increasingly small schools. Triple grades when I started teaching were actually planned for and encouraged - they were called family groupings, and generally had two teachers with up to 50 students. Usually primary classes, they were supposed to enable the older students to be good role models, and also enable a much wider range of flexible groupings for instruction. As is always the case with educational initiatives, their success depended on the teachers...