SA chaplaincy jobs in doubt as funding row deadline looms

By political reporter Nick Harmsen
ABC

Hundreds of school chaplains and secular support workers are facing an uncertain future as a deadline looms in a funding row.

The Commonwealth wants the South Australian Government to take over the running of its chaplaincy program but state Education Minister Jennifer Rankine is refusing because it excludes non-religious workers.

One of the workers whose position is now in doubt is Sara Walding, who has provided Christian pastoral support and counselling to the students at Belair Primary School for 11 years.

"I think the role's really valuable at that school. I've been there a long time and I really feel a part of that community," she said.

Belair principal Susan Copeland says the counselling is a vital part of school life.

"I'm very concerned ... how could we manage without that program and to be perfectly honest I think it would be very difficult," she said.

The Federal Government's chaplaincy scheme was ruled invalid by the High Court in June, for a second time.

The Government now has asked the states and territories to administer the $244 million program and has set Friday as a deadline for a response.

While most states have signed up, South Australia and the ACT are holding out because the federal funding specifically excludes secular support workers, of which there are about 110 in South Australian schools.

Minister Jennifer Rankine has defended the SA Government's stand.

"Give me a really good reason why you would restrict these school-based workers to religious workers only?" she said.

Her view is backed by David Smith of the Australian Education Union.

"The AEU is very strongly of the view that the State Government on this matter should hold firm," he said.

But by holding out in support of secular workers, the Schools Ministry Group says the SA Government is risking the jobs of more than 300 Christian workers.

Angela Jolly of the Ministry Group warns the state could end up missing out.

"If South Australia doesn't sign up to it then we could lose those positions and those jobs would go to other states, which would be a terrible thing," she said.

Ms Rankine hopes the differences can be overcome without losing workers.

"Let's hope that common sense prevails, that the Federal Government will have a conversation with us," she said.

"One would hope that the Federal Government will see some reason and I'll have some correspondence in the next day. I'm hoping that we can have some reasonable negotiation and make sure that all of our kids get access to these workers, whether they be religious based or non-religious based."

The Federal Government says it will respond to each state and territory after Friday's deadline.