Provincial budget falls short on inclusive learning support: WCPS

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Challenging budget circumstances are on the horizon for Wolf Creek Public Schools (WCPS) heading into next year’s budget.

The district, according to Superintendent Jayson Lovell, was hoping for increased levels of funding from the provincial government when it came to supporting students with higher level of needs, but the provincial budget came up short.

“Inclusive learning is a significant budget in Wolf Creek. As a matter of fact, the overall allocation is over $12-million,” said Lovell. “The funding we have received from the government is not meeting our needs and the profile we currently have in Wolf Creek.”

The shortfall is due to the current funding model, where schools are block-funded. Lovell explained that a formula was established about 10 years ago to determine a school’s profile, and a certain amount of money would be given to schools to support those with diverse learning needs based on that profile.

However, the block-funding model has not been updated, and WCPS alone has seen a significant jump in students needing additional support over the past few years. In 2014-15, there were 457 students with mild to moderate learning challenges, and 249 students with special needs or high learning challenges. Projections for this fall are pegged at 630 and 462, respectively.

“The funding just hasn’t kept pace, despite the fact we have many, many more students that we’re serving,” he said. “The other difficult reality we’re facing is the board has had operational reserves they’ve used to support our level of inclusion. Unfortunately, the board reserves are virtually gone.”

In 2012-13, operational reserves held over $8 million. Now, the board is projecting just $750,000. With no extra funding coming from Alberta Education, that almost definitively guarantees cuts moving forward.

Lovell says WCPS has also fell off a bit in terms of enrolment, so the board won’t be able to make up the shortfall through new revenue and will be forced to make adjustments to keep a balanced budget.

The WCPS board in meeting this Friday to begin deliberating their budget.

While there’s concern surrounding the funding model for inclusive learning supports, there are some positive elements to the Alberta budget for the district.

The provincial government has made a commitment to fund enrolment growth should a school district see student population begin to rise.

There is additional funding for First Nations, Metis and Inuit education through a new grant designed to enhance learning opportunities for students with those backgrounds. WCPS was successful in applying for and receiving the grant, which is worth $130,000 for three years, for a total of $390,000.

The school nutrition program also increased in funding, which provides a school – in Wolf Creek’s case this year, Ponoka Elementary School – with a nutritious snack or meal provided for every student for the entire school year. The additional funding will likely see an expansion of the program into a second school.

“It’s a very nice piece for us to see come forward,” said Lovell. “Overall, it’s a budget that maintains funding at the current levels.”

As for approved school projects in WCPS, Lovell says they were optimistic that there would be some funding set aside for the Iron Ridge Elementary Campus in the Town of Blackfalds.

A comprehensive value management study was recently done on the school, which resulted in a recommendation for a replacement school for 600 students. While the board approved the project, it didn’t quite make the cut provincially.

“We do recognize the next round of announcements is in the fall, so we’re hopeful that we’ll be on the list,” he said.