The new private operator of the Waterford Bridge Road adult basic education (ABE) centre says he’s confident the facility, tailored to students with mental illness, can operate as before even with one fewer teacher, while political critics are blaming the government for neglecting the school’s special circumstances in the tender process.
“As time goes on, people will realize, ‘Hey, things are continuing,’” said Steve Snow, president of the Discovery Centre, which won a tender bid to deliver the program.
“I feel we will deliver a high-quality program.”
As reported in Wednesday’s Telegram, advocates for the centre — Mark Gruchy, president of the Canadian Mental Health Association Newfoundland and Labrador (CMHA-NL), and Donna Kavanagh, a retired instructor and co-ordinator who spent almost 40 years at the centre — fear the centre could be in jeopardy.
They say the program wasn’t saved intact as promised, but rather the government went with the lowest bid, resulting in a slashed budget.
The centre was previously operated through the College of the North Atlantic in co-operation with Eastern Health — it’s located in a building on the Waterford Hospital property.
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 said in the House of Assembly in the spring 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, which is staying in its previous location, has been cut from three teachers to two.
The advocates say it is also unclear whether technical resources to help those students who have learning disabilities will be incorporated into the new operation.
And they say the tender document wasn’t specialized enough to preserve the intent of the Waterford ABE program, which they say is not just about clients getting their high school education, but is a bridging program that accounted for challenges students may have while coping with mental illness or learning disabilities.
CMHA-NL had also bid on the program, but did not win. While it built some cuts into its bid, it planned to retain three teachers.
Gruchy and CMHA-NL executive director George Skinner met with Snow and say he was co-operative, but they remain concerned for the future.
Snow said Thursday he wants to work with CMHA-NL and is aware the students have special requirements.
“They need special accommodation and that’s being provided. … It’s not just bare bones,” he said.
Snow said he will provide technology to help students with learning disabilities, is putting 30 per cent more print resources into the program, the relationship with Eastern Health will remain the same and while one staff from the centre is staying on as co-ordinator, the new instructor also has mental-health training.
Snow acknowledged training may not exactly match what previous staff had, but said it is appropriate.
He also said he has experience delivering ABE programs to people with a learning disability and anxiety — the Discovery Centre is about 20 years old — and felt he had a grasp on what was needed when he drew up his bid.
As for progress guidelines that govern ABE programs and judge students on such things as attendance and course completion time, Snow said he’s been given assurances by the department that the Waterford centre won’t be kept to those requirements.
Advocates are concerned it’s a verbal agreement, not a written one.
Snow said he wants to work with CMHA-NL to make sure students get the services they need. He also said two staff at another Discovery Centre city campus have mental-health training and could back up staff at the Waterford ABE centre if needed.
NDP health critic Gerry Rogers noted the Waterford ABE program wasn’t previously under the Department of Advanced Skills and Education and was well suited to the college, which had the expertise, and said it can’t simply be lumped in with other ABE programs.
“(The centre) is dealing with people with very significant mental-health issues. To apply the same standards makes no sense at all,” Rogers said.
She said the government assured that the Waterford site would be handled differently and blamed the tender process for the concerns that now exist for the centre.
“There’s no guarantee that this program will be delivered the way it needs to be delivered,” Rogers said.
“I am very disappointed in the tender process. It totally missed the boat in terms of the specific needs of this program.”
Liberal Health critic Andrew Parsons said the government has shown a true misunderstanding of the program’s intent.
“I don’t think they had any idea what was going on,” he said, adding he understands the fear for the future.
“You’re in a position now of what can you do, keep an eye on it and hope to God.”
Parsons said the government should have listened to people such as Kavanagh and spent money to retain the centre as it operated previously, and should be answering her concerns now.