North Van school counsellors voice concerns over possible funding cuts

North Vancouver school trustees are asking staff to take a close look at the school district’s preliminary budget figures for next year after school counsellors packed a board meeting to voice concerns about possible cuts to their positions.

“We as a staff can make no stronger request than to stop all cuts to counselling,” said teacher Darren Steele, speaking for teachers and support staff at Sherwood Park Elementary.

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Steele said kids at his school are already coping with “intergenerational trauma, child abuse and other mental health issues,” adding that staffing for counsellors and teachers who work with special needs students are already inadequate and inconsistent.

Teacher Claudia Panton said her own young daughter is sometimes unable to stay in the classroom while she works to calm down from panic attacks and said the help of a school counsellor has been very important. But that counsellor is only in the school two days a week, she said. Panton said she fears what will happen if that position is cut to only one day a week.

School counsellor Mary Sparks also urged the board not to cut funding for counsellors. “I was here last year. I’m very disheartened to be back,” she told the board. Sparks said school counsellors are often the only supports for children and their families. If those positions are reduced, “I absolutely believe this will put vulnerable students at risk,” she said.

School district staff told trustees at Tuesday’s board meeting the situation is not as dire as it may appear.

Staff are still working on a budget, which has not yet been presented to trustees.

As part of that process, schools are provided with preliminary figures to get feedback.

But the school district does not have confirmation of some provincial funding – amounting to several million dollars – which helps to pay for restored teachers’ contract requirements for class size and composition, said Mark Pearmain, superintendent. Seven specialist positions are also designated by a joint special needs committee made up of teachers and staff, said Pearmain, and that hasn’t happened yet.

Pearmain said staff are hoping information on both of those questions will be provided soon.

Treasurer Georgia Allison said the school district can’t put together a budget without confirmation that there will be enough funding to pay for staffing positions.

Similar concerns about possible cuts to specialist teacher positions, including counsellors, psychologists and English language learner teachers, were raised at this time last year. Those positions were eventually added back into the final budget passed in June.

While the province pays for classroom teachers in order to meet class size and composition rules, specialist teachers are funded on the basis of district teacher/student ratios. The province won’t pay for specialist staff above those numbers, staff told the board.

But trustees can always decide to take money from elsewhere in the budget to pay for those positions, they added.

Trustee Megan Higgins said she’d like to see information about specialist teachers provided for the past five years when the board sits down to consider the budget.

Higgins said she’d also like to see options that would result in those counsellor positions being kept. “It’s obviously a very important area for the community as a whole,” she said.

One more complication is the school district is projecting a decline of over 200 students next year, “which means there is less funding. Which means there is less staffing,” said Pearmain.

The board is expected to vote on its budget for the coming school year next month.

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