Slashed budget a detriment to students with mental illness, they say
© — Photo by Barb Sweet/The Telegram
Mark Gruchy, president of the Canadian Mental Health Association Newfoundland and Labrador, discusses concerns for the future of the Waterford Bridge Road adult basic education centre with retired instructor and co-ordinator Donna Kavanagh. The program began 40 years ago and was tailored to students with mental illness.
By Barb Sweet
The Waterford Bridge Road adult basic education (ABE) centre has been slashed and its intent is in jeopardy, advocates say.
That’s despite the promise they say was made by the provincial government when it privatized ABE programs, including the one at the Waterford, which was tailored to people coping with mental illnesses.
Mark Gruchy, president of the Canadian Mental Health Association Newfoundland and Labrador (CMHA-NL) and Donna Kavanagh, retired instructor and co-ordinator who spent nearly 40 years at the centre, spoke to The Telegram because they fear the centre could be in jeopardy.
“It’s in a greatly weakened state and what happens next?” Gruchy asked.
“I have been waiting for something like this to happen for years, because it’s just a standard story of a small entity with vulnerable people. … And I kept thinking to myself, one day it is going to be very easy for someone to just push this aside, and this is what we are very concerned about now.
“The thing is, it must be a miniscule drop in the government budget. … What is frustrating for me on this is the school has been widely presented as having been ‘saved,’ when the reality is it has been very seriously altered.”
Gruchy discovered he wanted to be a lawyer while attending the program — he graduated from the centre in the 1990s and credits it with saving his life.
Kavanagh is equally passionate about it. While run by the College of the North Atlantic, it wasn’t just about students getting their high school education, but was also a bridging program that accounted for challenges students may have while coping with mental illness or learning disabilities, she said.
“We are not just dealing with people who are getting their high school and that’s the end of it. It is very much a very blended education, counselling, individual-customized-assistance program,” Gruchy said.
“One of the things I have always said about it is there ought to be many of these schools, not one that has been cut, because it really was the only thing like it.”
In the March 26 provincial budget, the government announced it would privatize ABE services to save money.
But Advanced Education and Skills Minister Joan Shea has said in the House of Assembly that the education provided to students will be exactly the same — it just won't be provided by the public college anymore.
However, since it was privatized to the lowest bidder, the Waterford Bridge Road centre has been cut from three teachers to two, and it’s unclear whether it will employ technology that helped students overcome learning disabilities, as it did previously, Kavanagh and Gruchy said.
Salaries have been slashed by as much as $30,000 per teacher, Kavanagh said.
While the centre was run through the college, it meshed well with Eastern Health, which referred the students, she said. It operates from a building on the property of the Waterford Hospital, which provides mental health services.
The co-operation — teachers working with a medical team and counsellors — was so smooth, many people didn’t realize the centre’s instructors weren’t employed by Eastern Health, Kavanagh said.
The students were also able to try out courses at the college to help them pick a career, she said, adding some went on to advanced degrees and professions such as engineering and nursing.
CMHA-NL put in a bid to run the Waterford Bridge Road ABE centre, but didn’t win, despite the fact those involved in putting the proposal together say they got a supportive vibe from the government, as CMHA-NL runs other services, such as the justice program which provides support for inmates diagnosed with a mental illness.
But Gruchy said it’s not about sour grapes, or that CMHA-NL is against privatization per se.
Rather, he said, the program has been far from saved, as was pronounced in May and they just want it run right.
“And it has now reached a point here after having engaged in every, I suppose, official avenue of trying to be of assistance with this, we are expressing concern about what has occurred,” Gruchy said.
CMHA-NL is trying to develop a mental health centre.
“And we thought in that context, this would be a good fit for what we are doing,” Gruchy said, adding there were cost savings, including some salary reductions, in its bid for the Waterford centre.
“The proposal we put forward did contain cuts to reflect privatization. … We tried to play ball and ultimately it went to the lowest bidder.”
Gruchy said he and CMHA-NL executive director George Skinner have since met with Steve Snow of the Discovery Centre, which won the tender, and say Snow was co-operative and told them he has verbal assurances the standard contract that’s been put in place for all the ABE programs won’t be enforced the same way at the Waterford Bridge facility.
Both Skinner and Gruchy said while Snow was conciliatory and they don’t want to take away from his business, they remain concerned for the future of the program because the government took the lowest bid without considering the centre’s circumstances.
The standard ABE contract requires students be evaluated on such things as attendance and progress, Gruchy said. And that doesn’t really work for a program that’s been tailored to help people succeed while coping with mental illness.
“The concerns we have are the characteristics of the people who will be in this program are not the same as in the everyday ABE programs,” Gruchy said.
With only verbal assurances, a bureaucrat in future may enforce the contract to the letter, he added.
“The battlefield is set if someone wants to apply it that way. Now you are in a situation where it could come to be harmed in the future when no one is looking.”
Kavanagh, who helped the CMHA-NL in its bid, said the government’s tender call was a boiler plate for all the ABE programs and didn’t provide for the unque services of the Waterford centre.
The CMHA-NL proposal, while it cut salaries, retained the three teachers to preserve the student-teacher ratio that worked for the Waterford centre and also retained the technology for learning disabilities.
“It’s just horrible what they have done,” Kavanagh said of the decision to go with a lower bidder, rather than preserve the intent of the centre.
“We ended up, of course, being the highest bidder because we took the government at their word. I have been accused of being naïve. I never realized I was so naïve.”
On Aug. 19, Kavanagh wrote Shea a letter, noting the tender document did not give bidders the complete information to continue the services as it was designed and went with the standard ABE student/teacher ratio, rather than the eight-to-one student/teacher ratio that served the centre well and helped students succeed. She also said the staff received mental health training while it was being run through the college.
“I believe this is a matter of utmost urgency. … My career at the centre was a tremendously rewarding one. I had the opportunity to work with, and learn from, countless individuals and families who had lost hope that life could ever be different, and to watch students regain skills and confidence and reach their potential,” Kavanagh wrote Shea.