Following the announcement that the University of Saskatchewan would be re-examining all of its options for childcare expansion, Vice-President Finance and Resources Greg Fowler said they had never made a commitment to a proposed daycare facility next to Souris Hall.
“We never had a previous commitment,” said Fowler in an interview with the StarPhoenix on March 28. “What we had is ‘board one’ approval to proceed with the plan.”
For the project to move forward, Fowler said that ‘board two’ approval must be given by the U of S Board of Governors. In March 2013, the board granted ‘board one’ approval for a steering committee to move forward on the design of and fundraising for the project.
Since the board gave the go-ahead, a steering committee has been exploring various option for a new childcare centre on campus. The committee determined that building a new, 90-spot childcare centre next to Souris Hall in McEown Park was the best option.
Nour Abouhamra, U of S Students’ Union’s outgoing vice-president student affairs, said she doesn’t agree with Fowler’s claim that the university never committed to the centre.
“In order to start planning a project, you have to have support for it. I believe that initially the university had made a commitment to building a new childcare centre and now they’re going back on their word,” Abouhamra said.
Colleen Gerling, the Executive Director of the USSU Childcare Centre, echoed Abouhamra’s sentiments and said she was under the impression that the university’s administration was still behind the project up until a few weeks ago.
“I heard that the top dogs were committed to this,” Gerling said. “When it came out that they were not committed to this and that we couldn’t get the fundraising done because there was no commitment to the location, that was really disappointing to me.”
When the university announced that they would be exploring other options for childcare expansion in early March, both Abouhamra and Gerling were left wondering why the university would put in a year’s worth of work if they were never committed to the project in the first place.
“I just find it really ironic that we were given all this money to do all this and now it’s done and suddenly the university is not committed to it,” Gerling said. “You’ve spent all this money to get to that point and now you’re not committed? Why would you spent all that money and then not follow through?”
Fowler attributed the delays on the facility to the U of S’ current financial situation. The university is currently facing a projected $44.5 million deficit for the 2015–16 fiscal year. To combat the deficit, the university is making budgetary changes to a number of academic and support service programs through a process known as TransformUS.
“This comes at a time when we are looking at our budget, our priorities and our responsibilities and there are questions about our core mission and if it’s part of the university’s core mission to address this,” Fowler said.
Gerling said she is worried about the long-term implications of delaying the project. In 2013, the Government of Saskatchewan gave the U of S $1.1 million in capital and operating grants for a new childcare centre. However, the grants were awarded on the condition that the centre be completed by summer 2014. When it became clear this wasn’t going to happen, the U of S asked for and was given an extension until 2015.
“Because we already have this money and we’ve committed to this money, if we turn around and give it back, we’ll probably never see money for childcare on campus again,” Gerling said. “We have to give the government the reassurance that we can be accountable in the future, so it’s going to take time to rebuild that trust and show the government that we’re not backing down from our commitment.”
There are currently two childcare centres on campus — one in the R.J. Williams Building and one in the Education Building. The centres offer a combined 110 childcare spots.
However, with a reported three-year long waiting list for childcare spots on campus, many feel that the U of S isn’t doing enough to accommodate student-parents. Abouhamra said the length of the waiting list is reason enough for the U of S to make providing childcare a priority.
“The promise was made and they’ve been waiting for years for a childcare centre,” she said. “If it doesn’t go through, there will be a lot of students that are disappointed and students that were thinking about coming here may look at other institutions.”
Gerling said she feels that the Board of Governors doesn’t understand how important providing childcare to students really is. She said she has gained the support of the childcare centre’s board of directors to extend an open invitation to the university’s Board of Governors to visit the facility and learn why so many members of the campus community feel that providing childcare should be a priority.
“The feeling I get is [the board] just doesn’t know or understand why we need a good facility to make this happen. Maybe it’s their lack of knowledge of what childcare is all about — I don’t know,” Gerling said. “If we offer a tour to them though, maybe they can come and get a better feeling before they make anymore decisions.”
Another university administration decision has added to fears that the U of S is not taking childcare expansion seriously. The elimination of the Associate Vice-President Student Affairs position was announced on March 28. Though a TransformUS taskforce recommended that the position be phased out, these changes were not supposed to be made until May 1 — the beginning of the TransformUS phase wherein these recommendations are put into effect.
David Hannah, who held the position and also acted as head of the childcare expansion steering committee, was regarded as one of the strongest advocates for a new childcare centre on campus.
“I was very upset because Dave was our top advocate. He was the one person that was really pushing for quality childcare,” Gerling said. “He made a real effort to find out what childcare was about and what it meant.”
Fowler said that responsibility for campus childcare will now fall on Vice-Provost Teaching and Learning Patti McDougall.
With the future of childcare on campus unclear and administration’s position on the matter becoming increasingly uncertain, proponents of a new facility are worried about the message the delays are sending to the campus community.
“It’s saying that people with families are not a priority. If they’re a priority, you do everything you can to help them,” Gerling said.