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'Now is not the time' to cut school counsellors, say mental-health experts; music programs also face cuts

School board must balance its budget

With the Greater Victoria School District budget set to be passed in just a few weeks, mental-health experts are urging the board not to reduce money for student counsellors.

Sandy Wiens, retired provincial executive director of children’s mental-health policy, noted one of the budget options is to leave two vacant counselling positions unfilled, while eight others would be cut.

“Children’s mental health is chronically underfunded and the pandemic has only increased the mental-health and well-being challenges that children face,” Wiens said. “It’s absolutely not the time to be cutting services.”

She said teachers rely on the counsellors to identify students’ levels of need. When it comes to kids’ mental health, counsellors are trained to both assess and intervene, said Wiens, adding kids might also be experiencing stress because of Russia’s war in Ukraine. “There’s just so many things impacting families right now and kids feel that.”

Cuts to counsellors are on a long list of possible reductions as the board grapples with a $7-million deficit. It’s required by the province to submit a balanced budget. The board’s plan is to pass the final budget on April 7.

Last year, amid loud public backlash about proposed music-program cuts, trustees used $4.8 million in accumulated surplus funds — similar to a contingency fund — to help balance the $254-million budget, but only $800,000 of that funding is left for this year.

Gayle Read, who is retired from a 32-year career working with children and youth with mental-health issues, said the possibility of school cuts to counsellors is “very worrisome.”

“I know that if children are not getting the support they need in schools that their problems may progress to a point where they do need to get more intensive counselling at a mental-health clinic.”

She said that the cuts up for consideration could mean most schools would have counsellors for only two days a week.

Read said she understands the school board is in a difficult position “but I think children’s mental health should be a non-negotiable item.”

District secretary-treasurer Kim Morris noted that two counselling positions have gone unfilled for a number of years, because of a lack of qualified applicants. “Do we continue to set aside $200,000-plus in the budget for positions that never get staffed?’” Morris said. “Or do we use that money to help balance the deficit?”

Morris also noted that the district is currently eight counsellors over the level required in its collective agreement. Eliminating those positions would save $924,480, she said.

Also back in line for possible cuts are some music programs, which were shaved by five per cent last year.

One proposal this year is to cut 11 teaching positions for middle-school band and strings to save $952,908, although Morris said music cuts could be reduced “depending on what the tolerance was.”

Reynolds Secondary band parent Dan Del Villano joined a protest Thursday near the school because his two children, in Grades 10 and 12, have benefited so much from school music programs. He said the proposed music cuts wouldn’t affect them but would impact students coming along behind them. “They’ve had such a good experience with music in school,” he said. “It’s made them so appreciate school.”

A proposed French immersion cut would affect one class while saving $130,005, Morris said.

The issue is that a late-French immersion program in Grade 6 at five schools includes two schools with low enrolment. The proposal is to downsize by one class and have the affected students attend other schools.

“So they wouldn’t be without a program — they would just not be at the school they intended to be at.”

A proposal to cut daytime custodians would save $246,923 at elementary schools, $197,282 at middle schools and $187,129 at secondary schools.

Feedback on the budget can be given at until April 1.