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Proposed Nanaimo school cuts raise concerns

The proposal to eliminate child, youth and family support workers from Nanaimo elementary schools was the main concern of many speakers at a public meeting Monday evening.

About 150 people packed the gym at Nanaimo District Secondary School to hear 26 presenters give school trustees feedback on the proposed 2011-12 budget. District staff have proposed 18 budget strategies – mostly cuts – that would make up a $1.4-million shortfall.

One strategy calls for eliminating all elementary school child, youth and family support workers to help fund a new project that aims to increase literacy rates at the primary level. More than half of the presentations addressed the proposed cut.

Robin Smith, a support worker in four Ladysmith schools, told trustees her job is to help students meet basic physical and emotional needs so their energy is freed up to learn and removing those jobs to focus on literacy is backward.

She spends about half her time facilitating Rainbows programs, a peer support program that helps children deal with divorce or separation, death, foster care or the day-to-day challenges of living in a struggling family.

"One student told me he likes Rainbows because it helps him stop crying in his head," said Smith. "Our jobs do focus on helping vulnerable students learn. We keep those vulnerable students in our schools."

Camilla McGuire and Louise McArter, also support workers, told trustees that elementary support workers work with 159 referred families, 133 other families and 97 groups with 1,096 students.

"There is still a huge need for family support and assistance for our children," said McArter. "It is very difficult for a child to focus on school work when they are hungry, hurting or afraid."

Presenters were also concerned about proposals to reduce the hours of community school coordinators, teacher-librarians and the maintenance department's budget.

Jim MacGregor, a community school coordinator at NDSS, said community schools serve a vital role in making connections between the school, the community and students and offer year-round learning opportunities.

"We know that when people are connected socially, they do much better in school," he said.

Teacher-librarians spoke against the proposal to reduce their positions by 2.5 blocks and maintain a ratio of one librarian for every 850 full-time students.

Liz Sansoucy-Jones explained that teacher-librarians work with staff and students individually, teach information literacy with an emphasis on critical analysis and promote books.

"We feel we have a pivotal role in implementing the district's literacy goal," she said.

Greg Paterson, who works as a general foreman in the district's maintenance department, spoke against cuts to the maintenance budget.

He said cuts over previous years mean the district is unable to keep up with any sort of preventative maintenance program and trades workers are relegated to "putting out fires."

"We continue to watch helplessly as millions of dollars of infrastructure deteriorates before our eyes," said Paterson.

Derek DeGear, president of the Nanaimo District Teachers' Association, urged trustees to refuse to make any further cuts and submit a deficit budget to the province. By law, school districts are obligated to submit a balanced budget each year.

Trustees will discussed the proposed budget cuts and feedback from the public at a meeting after press time Wednesday (April 13).

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