Facing a third deficit school year in a row, the Canadian Rockies Public School board approved $1.3 million in spending cuts to its budget for the upcoming school year on Tuesday (May 10).
The move means 16 teaching positions will be lost throughout the division, students will see increased class sizes, fees will increase by $10 per student and, for the first time in a decade, parents will have to pay $60 per child yearly for bus services.
The cutbacks will include support staff, including administrative assistants, library staff, janitorial services and the repair and maintenance of school facilities – the full extent of which won’t be known until after discussions with those respective unions.
The explanation to parents is a multi-faceted one led by the announcement in February from the provincial government of a 4.54 per cent increase in funding being not exactly what it seemed.
CRPS chair Kim Bater said the funding announcement to cover the five-year negotiated increase to teacher’s salaries between the Stelmach government and the Alberta Teachers Association resulted in an additional $421,444 for the Bow Valley.
However, at the same time, and with far less media exposure, Alberta Education eliminated or cut several funding programs for schools across the province.
Superintendant Brian Callaghan said those cuts, including to a class size initiative for Grades 4 to 6, take away a total of $552,200 from the local school district – resulting in a net loss of $130,756 in funding while fixed costs continue to rise.
“So the 4.54 per cent increase announced in February has a little bit of a different twist when you play out all the different pieces,” Callaghan said.
However, it was the fact CRPS is continuing with plans to introduce full-day kindergarten programming in Canmore and Banff that caused concerns for parents during the board’s meeting.
Bater said because another school district in the area is offering that program, CRPS is losing kindergarten students and the board made the decision to move forward with full-day programming at an estimated additional cost of $200,000.
“It is a strategic position and an attempt to put us in the best position, not now, but in the future,” he said. “It has an impact on student numbers over time… parents have choices and will take them and we are trying to make sure we have a choice.
“We want to place these schools in these communities in the best position to retain students.”
The overall decrease in funding, combined with declining enrollment numbers and two years of deficits and the need for CRPS to put forward a balanced budget, has resulted in the spending cuts.
CRPS budgeted for a deficit in the current school year of $450,000 after Education Minister Dave Hancock told boards to spend reserves instead of cutting teacher positions.
Bater said the board followed that direction under the impression it had reserves, but the audited financials in fall revealed an unexpected deficit of $591,000 from the 2009/10 school year.
Callaghan said without reserves, Alberta Education can reject deficit budgets from boards and at the extreme end, can usurp local authority and cut the budget itself.
To the district’s benefit, he added, the department has agreed to allow CRPS five years to pay back the two-year $1 million accrued deficit beginning in the 2012/13 school year.
On top of all those factors is the wealth of experience Bow Valley teachers possess – a double-edged sword.
Bater said the system is flawed and CRPS pays for it. Boards, he explained, are funded for teachers based on a provincial average.
But due to a salary grid within binding contracts with the ATA, teachers with more experience get paid more.
For the past decade, the Bow Valley has ranked in the top three of districts in terms of teacher’s years of experience, meaning CRPS gets less funding than it costs to pay teachers.
“It is one of our major barriers,” Bater said, adding experienced teachers are wanted, but there should be a recognition of the cost by the province. “Typically, those boards without surpluses have those higher grid costs.”
One area untouched by the school board is in funding for students with special needs.
“We have maintained all supports for special needs students given the nature of their learning needs,” Bater said. “We felt we could not cut the area that is most vulnerable.”
While spending remains for those students, the funding for children with severe disabilities has been frozen by the province for two years while it undergoes a review of special education in the province.
Bater said what is most concerning about that freeze is not just the amount received per student, but that the number of students funded is frozen while the number of children in the school system continues to rise.
“Most school districts would say special needs funding has been under-funded for many years,” he said. “It is a chronic problem and we now have a frozen chronic problem.”
Administration and the board also cut its own budget, with a five per cent reduction in travel and subsistence expenditures.
While the board is allowed to spend up to six per cent of total expenditures on administration, CRPS has kept its budget below 3.7 per cent.
The reductions do not affect the Exshaw School to the same extent as others in the valley as its funding is secured through an agreement with the federal government.