Wolf Creek Public Schools facing 1.8 million shortfall in UCP government's belt-tightening budget

Wolf Creek Public Schools (WCPS) Board Chair Pamela Hansen. Supplied

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Wolf Creek Public Schools (WCPS) says the division will face a $1.8 million funding shortfall after the province dropped their tough, cost-cutting Budget 2019 Oct. 24.

While the budget promises to maintain funding at $8.2 billion for schools across the province, equal to the former NDP government’s spending a year ago, and maintain that level over the next three, WCPS says the removal of grant funding programs, in the middle of the school year, will see their budget come up $1.8 million short – or a $250 reduction per student within the division.

“We knew that this was going to be a tough budget, but this provincial education budget creates a significant and severe shortfall in funding for Wolf Creek Public Schools,” said WCPS Board Chair Pam Hansen in a release issued Monday. “We understand the desire for fiscal restraint, but to have this change in funding, and have it come during the school year, is extremely disappointing.”

The provincial budget will see instructional services across the province increase 2.2 per cent from $6.3 billion to $6.4 billion by 2022-23, but transportation funding will see a $51 million reduction from $751 million by 2022-23, and program support services will be cut $2 million during over that same time period.

It also removes a number of programs, including the Classroom Improvement Fund – a fund meant to be temporary that other school boards, such as Red Deer Public Schools, did not budget for- as well as School Fee Reduction Funding and Class Size Initiative.

A report released by the province on Oct. 18, however, says class size reduction funding has been largely ineffective, with class sizes in kindergarten to Grade 3 seeing an average reduction of 1.4 students per class since 2003-04, while $3.4 billion has been invested into the program, starting at $90 million in 2004-05 and blooming to $291 million by 2018-19.

“Albertans elected us with a clear mandate to conduct an audit of class sizes and determine what happened to previous funding dedicated to class size reduction. This report demonstrates that we cannot continue to throw money at this problem, rather that we must look for new solutions while continuing to appropriately fund education,” said Education Minister and MLA for Red Deer North Adriana Lagrange in a release on the report.

“As I make funding decisions, I will be looking through the lens of what is best for our students and what will be most effective in improving student learning. We owe it to parents and children to get better outcomes for the money that is being spent on education.”

The report says such dollars should be included with base instruction funding, so school districts have the “flexibility to use funds to best support their unique needs,” as well as noting other variables factor into student success aside from class size.

Still, WCPS, which has had to rely on reserve funds in recent years to maintain funding levels, including when they faced a $2.6 million shortfall in early 2018.

While grant funding programs have been replaced with a new one-time transitional fund, WCPS, however, says it won’t cover the shortfall of their removal, which the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) claims goes back on campaign commitments.

“The UCP government promised that education funding would be maintained or increased, yet this budget clearly imposes a significant funding reduction to Alberta Public School jurisdictions,” said Wolf Creek Teachers’ ATA Local No. 3 President Michael Doll.

“Wolf Creek educators, teachers and support staff, who are amongst the best in the province, have struggled to fill the gaps left by  inadequate government funding for several years. This budget will make it impossible to do so any longer. Students, our most precious resource, will suffer as a result.”

The province, however, disagrees.

“Budget 2019 honours our platform commitment to maintain education funding,” Colin Aitchison, press secretary for the minister of education, told Postmedia, saying per capita student funding will remain at $6,679.79 a year.

“Every student continues to be funded at the same levels as previous years. The government expects boards to direct resources to front-line student services and ensure that student learning is not impacted.”

Outside of the provincial budget, WCPS was also forced to switch insurers, resulting in an additional $1 million in premium payments to be made this year. Combined with budget changes, the division will have a $3 million deficit in their $90 million budget.

A total of 80 per cent of the budget goes towards salaries and wages in the division.

For now, WCPS will maintain funding as laid out in their 2019-20 preliminary budget by approving the use of operational and capital reserves at a Nov. 1 meeting to address the combined $3 million deficit, a move which includes using reserve funding previously earmarked for capital purchases such as buses, school equipment and technology replacement.

Senior administration has been directed to undertake a review of operations to find further efficiencies in preparation for the 2020 provincial budget expected in the spring.

Wolf Creek Public Schools serves approximately 7,300 students from kindergarten to Grade 12 in the communities of Alix, Bentley, Blackfalds, Bluffton, Clive, Eckvill, Lacombe, Ponoka and Rimbey. It employs approximately 412 teachers and 350 support staff across its 30 schools, including five colony schools in the division.

Burman University escapes post-secondary cuts

Lacombe-area Seventh-day Adventist School, Burman University, will be amongst just five post-secondary institutions in the province to not face cuts to their budget this year.

Budget 2019 outlines a combined $117.6 million of cuts across 26 institutions. Nearby, Red Deer College will see a $1,207,759 cut.

abarrett@postmedia.com

With files from Eva Ferguson

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