3 Alberta school boards warn LaGrange a fixed education budget means further shortfalls

Three of Alberta’s largest school divisions are warning the education minister that they believe the province’s planned education funding freeze will lead to increasing budget difficulties every year. 

In a letter dated last Friday and signed by the chairs of the board of trustees for Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD), Calgary Board of Education (CBE) and Edmonton Public School Board said no matter what the outcome of any changes to the funding framework, if the total education budget is fixed, the end result will be the same. 

‘Budget shortfall will grow’

“If the metro continues to receive the same amount of funding while their student enrolment continues to grow, their budget shortfall will grow at a compounding rate,” reads the letter, addressed to Education Minister Adriana LaGrange. 

The school boards said they took the opportunity to offer their feedback on modernizing the Public Education Funding and Assurance Framework after a Nov. 18 in-person meeting with LaGrange. 

But while LaGrange’s ministry said they appreciate the feedback from their education partners, they consider these concerns as coming a bit early in the process.

Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange’s ministry said it’s ‘premature’ for board to assume 2020-21 budget impacts right now. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

“This is part of an ongoing discussion as the province develops a new funding and assurance model for K-12 education over the coming months that will see a new framework be released with Budget 2020,” a spokesperson for the education ministry said in an email to CBC News.

“It would be premature for any board to assume 2020-21 budget impacts as we conduct this model review.”

Administrative costs

In the letter, the school boards also said they’re supportive of all “reasonable approaches” to minimize administrative education costs across the province.

But the boards argued because their board and system administration costs are already capped at 3.6 per cent of total expenditures, it wouldn’t “generate the level of savings necessary to address even the annual incremental cost of funding enrolment growth across the public education system.”

The boards said they believe that in order to achieve “material administrative savings,” the province would have to make an “up-front investment.”

“Implementing significant changes will require strategic investment in technology, people, process and practice,” wrote the chairs. ” Best practice suggests it is critical to make prudent investment up front to ensure change success.”

Enrolment funding

In their letter, the school boards also raised concerns with the “rolling average concept.”

“We understand that one of the potential concepts being contemplated in conjunction with the funding framework involves using four-year rolling average for enrolment count estimates,” said the letter.

But the boards said for metros that grow at, or faster than the average enrolment growth in the province this concept equals not providing funding for “one to two years of actual enrolment growth.”

“Recognizing the inability to add funding for enrolment growth on account of the frozen education budget, we would much rather continue with actual enrolment counts and instead have a lower per student rate applied to arrive at the same grant dollars, as would have resulted under the rolling average method,” the boars said.

When asked on Monday for further comment in relation to the letter, chairs for both CCSD and CBE declined.

CBE financial and governance audit

A fiscal and governance review of the CBE was officially launched last week at the order of LaGrange. 

She called for the audit after the CBE announced more than 300 temporary teacher contracts would end in January as a result of a $32-million funding shortfall that arose as a result of the province’s decision to eliminate a number of classroom grants.

LaGrange subsequently made the call to allow all Alberta school boards apply for one-time access to some of their maintenance funding to address staffing concerns. In total six school boards have been granted access to these funds.

Among them is the CBE which applied and was granted access to $15 million of their maintenance dollars — which it then used to rescind the more than 300 teacher lay-off notices, while at the same time retroactively increasing transportation fees.

When asked about the situation in a one-on-one interview with CBC News last week, LaGrange said she felt the CBE used children and students as “political pawns to send a message to the government,” and said if the review proved necessary she would fire the board of trustees.

LaGrange’s comment was called “outwardly threatening” and “abhorrent” by CBE trustee Julie Hrdlicka on Twitter the next day.

“Using populist rhetoric [to] try to destroy the reputation of myself, my colleagues, & #wearecbe based on unproven accusation is irresponsible & mean spirited,” she tweeted.

While CCSD made no moves to lay off teachers, it said it’s also facing an $11-million funding shortfall this year as a result of those same grants being cut. 

In order to address that shortfall, CCSD made the decision to increase transportation fees in the New Year.

But the board said given fiscal realities it “can’t possibly maintain all current levels of service.”

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