BOW VALLEY – The announcement by Premier Jason Kenney to table the 2019-20 budget in the fall has the local school board hopeful it will result in a more suitable funding framework for the Bow Valley.
Trustees for the Canadian Rockies Public School (CRPS) board said they are trying to stay optimistic while moving forward with financial planning for the 2019-20 year without a solid idea of what those finances will actually be.
“We are hopeful that they will review the funding framework that we’ve had difficulties with for a long period of time so we’re hopeful that this review will possibly help us in the end,” said CRPS superintendent Chris MacPhee.
“We understand that we have a government that’s looking deep into the fiscal resources that are available in the province.”
On May 1, Kenney announced the budget is slated to come out in the fall to give time for his blue-ribbon panel to report back at the end of the summer on the state of the province’s finances.
However, for the education sector a late budget can be challenging, said Carol Picard, trustee chair for the CRPS board.
Typically the board of trustees is working tirelessly on allocating funds to staffing, classroom improvements, and programming in early spring.
“If we do not have a budget from the government this spring we will need to balance our district budget based on our best approximation,” said Picard.
“We cannot staff with a deficit this year which could be exacerbated if the province releases a budget with further reductions in the fall.”
Picard said the previous government had provided the board with Classroom Improvement Funding (CIF) amounting to roughly $300,000 annually for the last two years.
“[It] enabled CRPS to hire additional staff to reduce class sizes and support students who have special needs,” Picard told the Outlook.
“The annual increases all staffing departments receive according to collective agreements represent approximately another $200,000 for the upcoming year. Changes in Occupational Health and Safety Regulations resulted in CRPS having to increase staffing in [that] area. And therefore resulted in additional costs of approximately $120,000 to the district.”
Picard said these are only a few of the financial challenges the board has to consider.
“Not having a budget could compound some of these challenges, especially if we received a fall budget that has further funding reductions after we complete staffing this spring,” she said.
Greg Jeffery, president of the Alberta Teachers Association, said a lack of financial clarity could result in the loss of staff members throughout the province.
“By now in a normal year, if the budget had come out when it normally does in February or in March, in some jurisdictions staffing for the next year would have already been completed based on the known dollars available to the system,” he said.
“Those dollars are not know so jurisdictions aren’t adjusting their staffing, or in fact, they’re cutting back on their staffing in anticipation of bad news, so we’re going to have places where they’re actually losing teachers where it may not be necessary just because the boards are being cautious.”
For MacPhee and Picard, maintaining staffing levels for schools is the first priority.
“It is always the objective of this office and of the board to have as many staff as possible within our financial means and with our children,” said MacPhee.
“It’s the reason we run an international student program, it’s the reason we have outdoor learning centres, because those programs support us by allowing us to be able to spend more money to put staffing in our schools.”
Currently, the international student program generates between $150,000-$200,000 of revenue annually, which is filtered back into the board’s budget to help ensure classrooms are adequately staffed as per the amount of children and their needs. The profit, however, is only a small dent in what was almost a $29-million budget in 2018.
“We know we have some financial challenges before the budget even comes out because that is very typical for this small little school division that this funding framework does not fit,” said MacPhee.
“We are building budgets right now… I’m moving them, trying to get them to move their books six or seven months ahead, which is risky.”
Jeffery’s said the current situation only further aggravates known issues within Alberta school boards and ultimately affects the students.
“The easiest way to deal with these sorts of situations is to increase class size or perhaps to get rid of some of the support so we would have reduced supports for inclusion in the classroom and those are major issues for Alberta teachers across the province already and this just exacerbates that problem,” he said.
The expectation is that 15,000 new students will be entering classrooms in the fall, which Jeffery said could worsen the issues if boards aren’t allocated money for growth. He said the Alberta Teachers Association does their best to alleviate the pressures that boards are under.
“We are really encouraging the ministry to get some information out to the boards,” he said.
“We do understand the pressure the boards are under. The boards are in the squeeze and we will continue to work with the government to try and alleviate that.”
Meanwhile, here in the Bow Valley, Picard said she hopes Alberta will continue to lead in education despite budget uncertainties.
“Despite the delay that is right now causing us angst, I remain hopeful that a careful and methodical examination of the current system will show the government that there is not a lot of fat to be cut from Education in Alberta and still maintain the world-class status this province enjoys,” said Picard.
“Educators come from around the world to study what we do and how we do it … I think we want to maintain that leadership.”
– With files from Jenna Dulewich