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Although spending cuts to education ended several years ago in Alberta, cuts to support staff continue unabated. Support staff are still seen as the flexible item in school budgets throughout the province. Need a new computer? Cut support staff hours.

Last year CUPE 1357 members in the Grande Yellow District (Jasper, Hinton, Grande Cache, Edson) had had enough. They know all too well what a decade of cuts means to students, to staff and to their communities. They know that students are slipping through the cracks of Alberta’s education system. They also know that the attacks on support staff continue because their work is consistently undervalued.

As a result students and other staff now learn and work in environments that are dirtier and less safe, while students with special needs are being short-changed.

Despite the annual cuts, CUPE members, proud of their contribution to public education, are still trying to cope. A membership survey found that 58 per cent of CUPE 1357 members (61 per cent of teacher aides) put in unpaid overtime. But after ten years of cuts, such band-aide solutions won’t work anymore.
The Local executive, working with CUPE staffers, put together a plan to tackle the need for increased support staff early last year. They conducted a survey of their members and in December, local president Pat Mitchell, secretary Manon Lucas and treasurer Sheila Stewart told the trustees that under-funding support staff work is hurting students.
Trustees heard that:

  • 85 per cent of teacher aides were concerned they had less time to support children with serious learning disabilities.
  • Two thirds of teacher aides said that there was no time to support children who had only mild or moderate needs. An additional 27 per cent agreed this was sometimes a problem, for a total of 94 per cent.
  • Over half of the teacher aides were concerned that children with special needs were not receiving adequate support for extracurricular activities.
  • A lack of textbooks and educational materials was reported as a problem by 71 per cent.
One member commented that the only special needs students with mild or moderate needs who receive support are the ones with behaviour problems. As a result, many students who just need a little extra attention the push of individual help from a teaching aide are slipping through the cracks. As well, gifted students are not being challenged. With large classes, teachers don’t have the time to provide the extra opportunities these children need to succeed.
Access to a library and to staff who can direct students to books and other library resources is a foundation of literacy. Acquiring a love for books is a precious lifetime gift that our schools must give to students. But the lack of resources and the low importance attached to library aides puts that gift in great jeopardy.

  • 63 per cent said the reduction in hours for staff was affecting access to library and computer resources.
  • Half reported that a reduction in book purchases was a problem.
Local 1357’s executive told trustees that secretaries, maintenance and trades workers, technology and administrative staff, although often invisible to the public, also contribute in essential ways to public education.
Cutbacks to clerical staff mean school offices are frequently closed for several hours during the day reducing parents’ access to the school and students’ access to their homes in case of important messages or emergencies.

  • 44 per cent of clerical staff said reduced clerical hours for receiving phone calls and observing students’ safe arrivals and departures was a problem.
Many clerical staff are now providing classroom support by supervising students who need to spend time outside the classroom. This work is all the more urgently required given that teacher aide staffing levels and hours are not sufficient to meet the needs in the classroom.
Administrators give lip service to the idea that building maintenance is important for ensuring secure learning environments and for protecting the public investment in school buildings and property. Yet among respondents:

  • 47 per cent reported that staff cuts and reduced hours resulted in delays responding to maintenance calls.
  • 42 per cent indicated that cutbacks were reducing preventative maintenance.
Local 1357 members reported that the contracting out of custodial services wasn’t working for anyone.
According to the membership survey:

  • 57 per cent reported that desks and floors were not cleaned frequently enough.
  • 54 per cent said that washrooms were not cleaned frequently enough.
  • Two thirds expressed concern that sidewalks are not cleared or sanded as needed.
  • 54 per cent were concerned that grounds are not adequately maintained.
The members of 1357 are urging the school division to reinvest in support services. But they are not prepared to leave it at that. They are now embarking on the public phase of their campaign to tell parents and ratepayers what’s happening in their schools.
Ron Lv0065sque

Choices effect quality education

“We are quite aware that the province is not providing responsible levels of funding to this Division. We are prepared to work with the Division and the Alberta Teachers Association to lobby the government for funding increases. At the same time, we understand that a school Division budget represents choices. When these choices are made each year, it appears that support staff positions are considered to be the flexible items in the budget.”
Brief to Grande Yellow District school division

Mold symptom of wider decay

CUPE members in Calgary have found toxic black mold in the roofs of schools. The mold isn’t a freak occurrence. It grew because the Calgary board believes that cutting roofers, maintenance and caretakers has no effect on the classroom.
Provincial and board officials seem to think the classroom exists in a vacuum, separate from its physical environment. But kids are hard to fool. They know that if the environment isn’t a healthy one, then probably nothing important is going on there.