School boards concerned about provincial cuts

  • Apr. 22, 2015 2:37 p.m.

In what officials call an “unprecedented move”, local school boards have joined others across Alberta with concerns regarding the 2015 provincial budget.

Red Deer Public and Red Deer Catholic School Board officials have great concerns about the lack of funding they will receive from the province after the 2015 budget was released last month. The government has also said school boards cannot access their reserve funds to help support the shortfall and they cannot operate in a deficit situation.

By joining 17 other school boards across Alberta they are hoping their concerns will be addressed – together they represent about 65% of students in Alberta.

In a release sent Monday afternoon, the school boards said, “According to provincial projections, there will be 12,000 additional students in Alberta next year and approximately 36,000 over the next three years. According to the provincial fiscal plan, this growth in student population is not, and will not, be funded. By not funding growth, we are effectively reducing the per pupil funding for every student while increasing class sizes. Growing districts are forced to attempt to provide the same level of service for more students with less funding.”

The release also went on to say, “Student success is at risk under the current budget despite the honourable intent to protect front-line classroom teachers. Growing districts will be forced to make reductions to support services to schools while ultimately increasing teacher workload and at the same time, reducing the support for some of our most vulnerable students. These students will be further disadvantaged by increasing class sizes.

“With this budget, trustees locally-elected to govern education have lost the flexibility to make the decisions that will minimize the negative impacts on their particular district. Specifically, the outlined framework hampers the boards’ ability to use their resources as they see fit to reduce the impact of these cuts and best meet student needs under difficult circumstances.”

Guy Pelletier, chair of the Red Deer Catholic School Board said the decrease in funding will equate to close to a $2 million reduction in anticipated funding.

“In addition to that we are concerned about the decision to not fund growth in student population. In a growing board – we grow about four to six per cent a year – for us if we’re assuming we’ll see another 400 students come through our doors come September, that’s another shortfall of about $1.8 million in addition to the $2 million,” he said. “It’s really a big issue when you’ve got to absorb 400 students and those students don’t bring funding with them to support that education.”

Pelletier added the Catholic board has a number of different scenarios to help reach the budget goals if the government does not make amendments.

“Typically we would use our financial reserves to help bridge us through these times when the funding is not as predictable as we would like it to be,” he said, adding this is the first time the government had ordered school boards to not access their reserves to make up for shortfalls in funding.

“We haven’t been given a specific reason for this but I would speculate that they are looking to ensure that divisions across the province are being as efficient and effective as they can be. But in my opinion, the fact that we have reserves is an indicator that we have been quite effective in the past. We put aside these dollars to help us continue good initiatives that have been undertaken by the division that may not get funding every year. If we can’t use that, then that money sits there not doing our students any good.”

Bev Manning, chair of the Red Deer Public School Board said the board is disappointed in the lack of funding and are concerned about the impacts it will have on the local division.

“It’s been many years since we have seen a budget that has been this difficult,” she said. “There was absolutely no question in this board’s mind that there was going to be less funding this year. We were prepared for that. What we were not prepared for how that came to us. The government has once again changed the rules in the middle of the game.”

She added there is also concern with the fact the government will not offer new funding for new students as well as no new teachers.

“New students in the district will have to be absorbed into the system. Some of our Kindergarten enrolments are quite healthy so I would assume we could see a growth of one per cent, but it’s really hard to say for sure,” she said. “Another rule is that we have to retain the same number of teaching staff. That is problematic in how we manage the district.

“We’re hoping that if we can speak with a large voice and represent the majority of students, that the government will have a sober second look about the budget and reconsider and consult with us. I feel trustees have had their local autonomy and decision making eroded.”

Meanwhile, Gordon Dirks, education minister said statements made by Alberta school boards with respect to provincial funding for non-teaching operations do not provide the full picture to Alberta parents.

He added Alberta school boards have a combined total of more than $460 million in their savings accounts. This is taxpayer money, funded by Alberta Education and built up over the years as a result of operational savings, he said.

“This year, my department reduced its operating budget by nine per cent and directed these savings to the front lines,” said Dirks. “I’ve been clear all along that school boards will be permitted to use their reserve funds if needed to meet front-line service needs in the coming fiscal year while they find savings in non-teacher costs – that is what this money is there for. These are school boards, not school banks.”

efawcett@reddeerexpress.com

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