EXSHAW – The Canadian Rockies Public School division says the federal government has agreed to fund Exshaw School for one more year, however, officials say it’s not enough.
Canadian Rockies Public School (CRPS) division officials said it received an email Thursday (Dec. 12) from the department of Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) indicating it would fund the educational institution until the end of the 2020-21 school year.
In August, CRPS received notice from the department that a funding agreement for students from the nearby Stoney Nakoda First Nation to attend the Exshaw school would be terminated at the end of the 2019-20 school year and future funding would be made available through the Stoney Education Authority.
“I think after the initial part where you think this could be a positive move, you realize quite quickly that we have a scenario where we have a number of families as well as staff who are in flux and in turmoil with regards to what is transpiring," said superintendent Chris MacPhee.
"For us to extend that to another year, it’s a shame, but I have to worry about the mental health of my staff.
“That piece [mental health] is not just the staff, it’s the families too. We have families that are considering moving to Canmore, so that’s something I would have never expected in this. The out pouring of support to keep the school open from the families who have students attending here as well as the public has been special and we consider this school to be special.”
CRPS initially received an email in August indicating the ISC was terminating a funding agreement dating back to 1973, which the board said has left them with a roughly $1.6 million shortfall. As a result of the funding change, the board was considering its options for 2020, which including closing the school.
Since that time, community members from Exshaw and Stoney Nakoda Nation have expressed concerns over the possibility of the school closing.
Stoney Education Authority’s superintendent, Bill Shade, told the Outlook in early October that the on-reservation schools don’t have the capacity to accommodate the 195 Stoney Nakoda students who currently attend Exshaw School.
In addition to this, MacPhee said many of the schools in Canmore are at, or close to capacity as well.
Exshaw School’s assistant principal, Jody Keon, said the entire situation has felt like a “chess match.”
“I think parents are feeling really pressured, they don’t have options,” she said. “They’re just being forced back onto reserve … I think [Exshaw School] is a special place and I think it’s just the choice alone that parents have to send their kids here to provide the best opportunity that they think they can have.”
ISC said in an email Monday (Dec. 16) the 1973 funding agreement remains in effect.
"The Department provides funding where the School Division supports the Exshaw School under the current agreement at a level of approximately $19,000 per funded student attending Exshaw school only. The tuition agreement funding provides a total of $4 million annually to the school division," the email said.
"As background, through Budget 2016, Indigenous Services Canada made investments to ensure all First Nation students on reserve receive a quality education. The Department worked with First Nation partners to improve the funding for education by adopting a new approach that provides Band Operated schools on reserve with funding that is more comparable to funding in provincial education systems, with additional enhancements for kindergarten and language and culture. The funding formula changes do not impact the payment of provincial tuition but are intended to enhance support for First Nations Control of First Nations Education."
An ISC spokesperson said as a result it notified CRPS that SEA would be taking over administration of the provinicial tuition starting in September 2020 and that the $1.6 million funding shortfall is inaccurate.
"The calculations for this have not yet been completed for subsequent years due to the time it will take to re-negotiate a new agreement between Stoney Education Authority and Canadian Rockies School Division," the email said.
"Throughout this transition, the Department has worked in partnership with the Canadian Rockies School Division and the Stoney Education Authority to obtain clarity on the true costs of the education services and supports at Exshaw School.
"Funding for the Exshaw school will remain status quo as the Department will be providing funding to the School Division based on actual costs for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year as well as the 2020-21 school year.
"The reported $1.6 million shortfall is inaccurate. There will be no funding shortfall and the students at Exshaw will continue to receive the same high quality education. The only change is in the administration at this point."
However, MacPhee said it is only a funding extension and the school would be better served with a longer agreement.
“We would prefer that the agreement maybe be a three to five year [agreement], so we have some sort of continuity for a period of time, not just one year where we’re rolling through this challenge again right into next year, continuing the stress on the system,” he said.
“So our hope would be that they would consider maybe three to five years, if they’re not able to come to the table and have a discussion now because of reasons we’re not aware of.”
Both Keon and MacPhee spoke of the stress the situation is having on staff across the board. Currently, Exshaw School has 12 full-time contracts the board would have to find room for throughout it’s other five schools should Exshaw School close.
“It’s impacting staff across the district for sure, there’s just that uncertainty of what’s going to happen and it’s a challenge to sustain that,” said Keon.
“It’s not sustainable, so I think making decisions around how to proceed – we’re in a time crunch – because it’s not something we can leave until the last minute.”
MacPhee added it’s not as simple as just moving those contracts into a new position across the board, rather it’s a bit of a “jigsaw puzzle.”
“We’d have to place them throughout our system and that’s just not a matter of saying you get this job or you get that job, it’s a jigsaw puzzle based on skills and a variety of other things within [a staff member's] portfolio,” he said.
“So it’s a much larger scenario that plays out for the division as a whole and therefore we need time to be able to process that.”