School boards coping with budget cuts

High Prairie School Division, whose head office is located in High Prairie, is one of many in the Peace Region finding ways to deal with provincial budgets cuts.

Divisions finding ways to keep teachers despite “challenging” provincial budget

Susan Thompson
South Peace News

Despite funding shortfalls in the wake of the provincial budget, local school divisions have found ways to keep their front-line teaching staff.

The Ministry of Education is spending $8.2 billion on education 2019-20, which is the same as what the former NDP government spent the year before, but the provincial budget also eliminated three grants: the fee replacement, classroom improvement and class-size initiative funds.

Many school divisions have come forward to argue that amounts to significant cuts, especially with increases to insurance costs after the province removed a cap on insurance rates.

The Calgary School Board has said it must cut 300 teachers in response to the shortfall, and with some rural divisions also pointing out a high impact on their budgets from the loss of grant money, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange has since said school boards can apply for one-time use of funding previously earmarked for maintenance and infrastructure to use for operational expenses like staffing instead.

In a news release issued Nov. 28, the Peace River School Division says their board of trustees “has a challenge ahead of them” after the announcement of the provincial budget.

The board submitted a spring preliminary budget to Alberta Education in June outlining the needs of the division for the school year.

“At that time the board chose to submit a budget maintaining for the most part status quo within the division. The provincial budget tabled in October 2019 while maintaining base funding, and some of the other grants, did result in a funding shortfall of over $800,000 for the 2019-20 school year,” PRSD says.

After meeting to discuss options, the board has decided to maintain school staffing by using reserves to offset the funding shortfall.

An updated budget will be reviewed at the regular board of trustees meeting Dec. 19, for submission to Alberta Education in January.

Meanwhile, at a special budget meeting held Nov. 20, the High Prairie School Division board of trustees and members of the division’s executive council also made a strategic plan for the remainder of the school year in response to the provincial budget.

“High Prairie School Division is pleased to announce that the financial decisions made as a result of Budget 2019 will not have an immediate effect on our classroom personnel. Our division, along with other school authorities, was warned that there could be changes to our funding, including the grants we receive,” HPSD says.

HPSD worked to find their own efficiencies to avoid relying on money they anticipated might not come, including the Classroom Improvement Fund, Class Size Initiative, and School Fee Reduction grants that were eliminated.

“These funding changes, together with significant increases to our insurance premiums [over $550,000], realized an approximate $1 million shortfall that we needed to address,” HPSD says.

“To resolve the remainder of the shortfall, HPSD was able to continue providing its educational services by changing the methods of operation. Some of the changes include more meetings being virtual as opposed to in-person, not renewing projects reaching the end of their term, and taking advantage of employee attrition for those positions that are not school-based.

“The board of trustees and the executive council noted that student wellness, career training, and Indigenous success are very important and were protected in this budget. We were also able to protect all school-based teachers and support staff.”

HPSD says they are taking the opportunity to “do things differently,” while keeping their focus on ensuring their students continue to receive an excellent public education.

The Holy Family Catholic Regional Division board of trustees held their annual special board meeting Dec. 4 where they discussed and approved their audited financial statements, 2019-20 revised budget, the Annual Education Results Report and 3-Year Education Plan.

In a release after the meeting, HFCRD says the division has “worked diligently” to try to prevent any impact from the provincial budget on operations or school staffing.

“In preparation for the 2019-20 school year, HFCRD planned a fiscally conservative budget that was a reflection of division priorities, a projected enrolment decline across the division and an overall commitment to decrease spending where possible.

“In October, funding changes and a substantial increase to insurance premiums were announced which reduced HFCRD’s overall budget. Fortunately, HFCRD’s actual enrolment for 2019-20 is 46 students higher than originally projected. Since funding is based on enrolment, this enrolment increase resulted in large enough funding boost that was able to cover a large portion of the shortfall,” the division says.

“To cover the remainder of the shortfall, HFCRD made some difficult decisions while continuing to prioritize division staffing and having the least impact on schools and families.”

HFCRD will not be cutting any staff, and is keeping their 18:1 pupil-teacher ratio across the division.

However, HFCRD has requested ministerial approval to transfer funds from Board and System Admin Capital Reserves.

According to financial statements, HFCRD’s deficits have climbed in recent years. The division’s deficit last year was $1.9 million, which has depleted the division’s operating reserves, leaving only the capital reserves. Capital reserves require ministerial approval to be moved to operating reserves.

The division is also suspending technology replacements for a year, and will try to cut back on travel.

The division says their priorities remain small class sizes, student success and faith teaching, as well as expanding Indigenous education.

A request for comment from Francophone school division Conseil Scolaire du Nord-Ouest, which is getting a new school in Peace River, had not been returned by press time.

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