EXSHAW – Families from the Stoney Nakoda First Nation will no longer be able to send their children to the Exshaw School as of September 2020.
During an emotional Canadian Rockies Public School board meeting Thursday (Jan. 23), elected officials made the decision to officially repurpose the school effective at the end of this school year.
The decision came after months of back and forth communications with Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) resulted in no solutions in terms of clarity surrounding changes being introduced by the federal government to educational funding for First Nations students.
“I am completely gutted by the federal government pulling this away from us,” said Exshaw School board trustee Jen Smith through tears.
“We have worked so hard and we have those numbers [high attendance, graduating students]. What we’re doing is incredible and yet they won’t come to the table and negotiate properly – it shakes me to my core.”
Superintendent Chris MacPhee said this isn't the decision the board was hoping for in the long run.
“Since the beginning, senior administration has had an undying wish to have the Indigenous students from Stoney Nakoda First Nation attend school within our boundaries, provided the proper resources are in place,” MacPhee said during the meeting.
“For anyone to suggest something differently is pure fiction.”
The decision to no longer operate Exshaw School, which sees 98 per cent of students attending class coming from the nearby Stoney Nakoda First Nation, was the result of funding program changes ISC announced last year.
Upon learning that Indigenous education funding was going to change, CRPS reached out to ISC to understand how those changes would affect the Exshaw School specifically. CRPS estimated the changes would result in a $1.6 million budget shortfall for the school.
According to the approved motion by the school board, Exshaw School will be repurposed in three ways; the facility will be utilized to expand programming from the Outdoor Learning Center (OLC); temporary residence equipment currently being stored at a different schools within the division will be moved to Exshaw School to support OLC programming; and the board will “entertain other programming opportunities for the facility such as, but not limited to, the community library.”
Another concern for the school board was that the situation affected the future contracts of staff members throughout the entire division. Teachers across the division have three different contract types; probationary, temporary and continuing. The board has a legal obligation to ensure those on continuing contracts have a teaching position in the division as per their contracts.
“We have to, by the Education Act, convert contracts [probationary, and/or temporary to continuing] by a certain time period – it’s law,” explained MacPhee.
“If we run into a position where we start converting contracts and lets say in a year's time, two years' time, or one and a half years' time, there’s a negotiation that’s completed … the problem that creates is what if we run into a position down the road where they aren’t going to fund the school at a level we can operate at?
"Then I have a whole bunch of teachers that are on continuous contracts and I have no temporaries or probationaries to move out of the system. In the end, you have to buy those teachers out and that costs millions of dollars.”
The decision was not an easy one for the local board, with Banff trustee Luke Sunderland saying it’s unfortunate Indigenous Services Canada hasn’t come to the table to negotiate yet.
“It’s unfortunate that ISC is not willing, or is not in a place to negotiate – it’s hard to tell which it is,” said Sunderland.
“Politics has gotten in the way. I see no reason to prolong this any further, it’s the responsible thing to do to not put our system at risk, regardless of how we feel.”
During a meeting with ISC on Jan. 8, CRPS said it brought forward options to discuss, but that ISC didn’t appear to have any plans to negotiate.
“It became quite clear from the meeting straight away that there was really no intention to negotiate … If you’re going to come to the table and talk about negotiations, then bring some options and discuss them back and forth like we did,” said MacPhee, adding ISC said it doesn’t know if the funding will be more, or less, or the same.
“The only difference they came in with in the meeting in January – ‘we’ll offer to cover your cost, however long it takes, to do the negotiation’ and then prefaced it by ‘usually this takes a year,’ but they’re ignoring the challenges this puts upon our school division with regards to human resources.”
Those in attendance at Thursdays board meeting were visibly shaken by the decision, with many shedding tears. The decision comes after nearly seven months of back and forth communication, which CRPS said has never been with the same person.
“The fact is we’ve been seeking out the media to dispel some of the myths that are out there. [ISC] continue to say they have not cut us by $1.6 million when the fact remains they sent us funding model on Aug. 22 that outlines dollar values to run the school, then we did the calculations,” said MacPhee.
“When I talk about the misinformation, I’m well aware the assistant deputy minister has verbalized that she said we have no numbers to work from and doesn’t know where CRPS was provided them, that they’re confused about the shortfall. As you can see, there’s a spin on info coming through.”
The Exshaw School has had an agreement in place since 1973 to receive student funding directly from the feds.
The school is an anomaly among the system, and potentially an unintended consequence.
However, CRPS officials said they has an entire division to consider and had to make a decision on how to proceed at Thursday's board meeting.
ISC was contacted for this story but did not meet press deadlines.