Cash left over from budget for COVID-19 preparations in Manitoba schools will be spent in fall: minister

Most of the $185 million the Manitoba government budgeted for pandemic preparations in schools during this academic year will be spent, but not all of it.

Education Minister Cliff Cullen was criticized by the Opposition NDP during question period Wednesday for underspending on the budget it set aside for helping schools through the pandemic. 

But Cullen insisted the budgeted cash will still be exhausted. He anticipates around $170 million will be paid out by late June, and the remaining money will be set aside for pandemic-related school expenses beginning next fall.

Cullen explained the $185 million budgeted for pandemic expenditures was an educated guess from last fall.

“We were making quite a few assumptions during that process,” he said.

“We set aside a per-pupil [funding] amount so that school boards could anticipate what kind of allocation would be available to them, and then we set a contingency amount over and above that, in case there was unforeseen expenses.”

No excuse not to spend budgeted cash: NDP

The total money available includes $85.4 million from the federal government. The remaining $100 million is from the provincial government, half of which is money school divisions and independent schools were asked to save last spring when schools shifted to remote learning.

There’s no excuse not to exhaust the money the Progressive Conservative government planned to spend on schools by this summer, NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.

“Any parent, any grandparent, any teacher, any school staff would tell you we should be doing everything we can to keep schools safe. You’re leaving money on the table? That means you’re not doing everything you could,” Kinew said.

As of March, the province paid out more than $100 million: $49 million for staffing, $22 million for learning and technology, $16 million for health and safety, $6 million for personal protective equipment and $10 million in other expenses, Cullen said in question period.

At the time, the province had around $82 million left to spend.

Education Minister Cliff Cullen said any remaining cash would be spent on pandemic-related expenses arising out of the next school year. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said it’s “particularly outrageous” the government will have money left over after the school bell tolls, considering the sacrifices school staff have endured “trying to do everything from teaching to contact tracing.”

When asked if the province could invest some of that cash in hiring more teachers, Cullen said hiring decisions are left to school divisions.

Kinew called that answer a “weak, laissez-faire response” and said the minister “should be going out there and ensuring that [the money is] all being used.”

The province has moved all students in Winnipeg and Brandon, as well as those in the Garden Valley and Red River Valley school divisions, to remote education as a result of rising COVID-19 cases.

Some other rural schools have closed to in-person classes due to confirmed infections of the virus.

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