BOW VALLEY – The Canadian Rockies Public School (CRPS) division has $1.38 million in its reserves.
That should be sufficient to get it and the six schools it operates in the Bow Valley through the 2020-21 school year with the expected additional costs related to COVID-19 and an anticipated operating deficit.
However after this school year – the board of trustees and administration are unclear what the financial future will look like – but they hope the CRPS international student program and outdoor learning centre will help balance the books at some point in the future.
Banff trustee Luke Sunderland noted that the board has been building its reserves over the past several years and to use them all up in one year is "beyond what we anticipated."
"Based on this snapshot in time right now, this is looking essentially at wiping out our reserves by the end of the year," Sunderland said.
"My concern is that by next September, that is when we get into a much bigger challenge by depleting this quickly – we will run out of runway very quickly.
"This is exactly why we chose to build up these reserves in the first place and now we are going to spend them at a rate that is completely unsustainable."
In addition to an anticipated deficit for the 2020-21 school year of $457,000, superintendent Chris MacPhee reminded the board that the 2019-20 school year resulted in a $656,000 deficit.
While that deficit figure still has to be finalized, secretary-treasurer Mike Guindon said the reserve account balance of $1.38 million is after the 2019-20 budget shortfall was calculated into that figure already.
With an additional $1.63 million in COVID-19 related expenses in 2020-21 and $640,850 in federal funding expected, that leaves a balance of $991,150 to cover from reserves along with the expected deficit from this school year of $457,000.
Guindon and MacPhee said that if the international student program, or the outdoor learning centre (OLC), are able to get back up and running, they could provide revenues to offset that deficit.
"I am crossing my finders that international students can come back," MacPhee said. "All that is pie in the sky right now – we have no idea. But if we keep going down this road, we are going to be in a position next year that is going to be extremely challenging."
The international student program was expected to bring $1.5 million in revenues to the budget prior to the COVID-19 pandemic being declared. It, along with the OLC, has supplemented the overal budget for the division for a number of years.
The programs have helped to eliminate deficits and build up the CRPS reserve funds. Guindon said not all school boards in Alberta are in a position to have reserves to rely on to get them through the COVID-19 pandemic.
School boards in Alberta are allowed to hold a reserve balance that does not exceed six per cent of its approved annual budget, which for CRPS is $1.5 million for a $30 million overall budget for 2020-21. Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange has also directed school boards to use reserves to get through COVID-19.
Guindon reminded the board that last year CPRS saw an unexpected 300 per cent increase to its insurance costs, resulting in an increase of $265,000 to the budget. He said all divisions experienced the increase and it was a significant hit to all budgets.
"The decision was made at that time, with the information we had, to shoulder that [cost with reserves] because insurance was an unexpected increase," he said.
Guindon also provided an overview of enrolment for the school year. The official Alberta Education enrolment count is taken on Sept. 30, and determines per student funding levels for all school divisions in the province.
CRPS anticipates an enrolment of 2,062 students – 45 fewer than what it had budgeted for in the spring and 100 fewer than attended the 2019-20 school year. There are also 300 students that chose to learn at home and access instruction from local teachers online each day.
MacPhee said enrolment was expected to go down with the Banff Hockey Academy relocating, which meant 25 to 30 fewer students at Banff Community High School.
However, the pandemic has also affected student numbers with MacPhee saying families are leaving the community as a result of the economic circumstances.
Sunderland said this summer has had a period of strong employment in the valley, but the fall and winter months could "get much worse."
"It could have an impact on us into the fall and winter," Sunderland said. "I think this is the best we could hope for at this point and hopefully we can sustain it."
While in the past declining enrolments have resulted in an immediate cut to the CRPS funding from the province, a new three-year weighted average is being used. But it means the drop in enrolment this year will affect the budget over the next two years as well.
"It provides a smoothing factor to the grant funding we are now going to be receiving from the government," Guindon said. "If we have a downturn in enrolment, it will impact us for several years."
Even with the drop in enrolment, director of learning and innovation Debbie McKibbin said staffing numbers were maintained, or increased. She also added all support staff positions laid off in this past spring have been hired back.
"In a typical year, if you had a drop of 45 students you would reduce your staffing as well, but in this case we have maintained our staffing and were able to re-deploy across different areas," McKibbin said.
Additional staffing included in the budget, due to COVID, includes a Grade 6 teacher at Lawrence Grassi, a Grade 3 teacher at Banff Elementary School, a part-time teacher at Canmore Collegiate High School, and an educational assistant in Exshaw. There are also funds for the high school level in-reach and distance learning programs, as well as substitute teachers.
That resulted in an additional $1.1 million to the budget. When additional equipment and supplies for COVID modifications to the schools and buses are factored in, the total additional COVID-19 related costs for the 2020-21 CRPS school year is $1.6 million.
Guindon said this is likely the most difficult budgeting process any school treasurer has ever had to put together given there are so many unknowns related to the pandemic.
"None of us are able to predict what these costs are going to look like," he said. "We just do not know, and in the budgeting realm, it is hard to predict what those costs will be."
MacPhee said the re-entry to classes in the midst of a pandemic has been challenging.
"This has probably been some of the most difficult months our school board and staff have dealt with in our careers and I think I can speak for everyone when I say that," he said.
A case of COVID-19 confirmed at Lawrence Grassi Middle School on Sept. 7 was a situation that could have been worse, MacPhee said.
The superintendent pointed out how an outbreak can quickly spread through a school and result in multiple classrooms being sent into isolation or quarantine.
"I am sure [COVID-19 cases in schools] will continue and vary in the provinve, but they are things we are trying to watch carefully as we move through this," he said.