Classroom funding concerns raised

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In one of his first question period sessions at the Legislature, UCP Sherwood Park MLA Jordan Walker raised concerns about classroom sizes with the Minister of Education.

In late May, Walker outlined how Park parents are concerned about the increasing classroom sizes and decreasing math and reading scores. Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said her ministry is already conducting an audit and the government will work with students, parents, teachers, principals, and educational stakeholders.

“I’m really excited our new government is committed to maintain or increase funding for education and is committed to building new schools under our capital plan, but at the same time focus like a laser on this issue of unmanageable classroom sizes in some instances. We have to get to the bottom of the NDP’s failed efforts to reduce classroom sizes,” Walker told The News.

Walker also wondered what the impact of spending a $293 million small classroom initiative fund by the previous NDP government had in 2017-18. LaGrange confirmed the audit will unearth how those funds were used.

“We’re going to follow up and continue to scrutinize where that money went and how new funds can be best spent to really reduce classroom sizes,” Walker said, adding an overall audit of classroom sizes will be included in the report.

The UCP government will leave it up to school boards to allocate funding.

“We just need to figure out where that money goes after it’s transferred to school boards. We need to know how to best do this because the former NDP government’s efforts failed miserably,” said the Park MLA. “At the local operational level, they are the best ones to decide how these funds are spent. We recognize and respect their expertise. We look forward to working collaboratively with key stakeholders to ensure that any further funding for classroom size reduction has a real positive impact.”

Explaining where those funds went, Elk Island Public Schools board chair Trina Boymook confirmed EIPS maintained smaller classroom sizes for kindergarten to Grade 3 (meeting a regulation set out by Alberta Education), as well as any high school trades classes, such as welding or construction, which requires a higher level of safety supervision. Provincial funding is not tailored to reduce general classroom sizes for Grades 4-12, Boymook stated.

“We don’t spend that money anywhere else. That money is spent on K-3 and CTS courses, but what we also do is we match that allocation so that all of elementary, for the rest of Grade 4-6, so that they have the same per student grant that K-3 have. We make adjustments as to how grants are allocated to the schools and we made that adjustment ourselves because we feel if we can help students in the elementary years right up to Grade 6, then they are set up for success for the grades after,” explained Boymook, adding EIPS isn’t concerned about an audit.

During Monday’s question period (after press deadline), the Finance Minister committed to funding growth, which will ensure 600 new teachers and support staff across the province for 15,000 new students.

The last time the board received any notable funding increase was in 2011, other than the exception of teacher salary increases.

EIPS parents shouldn’t expect to see a letter sent home asking if they would rather lose a gym or music teacher in order to maintain class sizes. The Calgary Board of Education recently took that action as it outlined if the UCP maintains status-quo funding, the board would be left with a $40 million shortfall because of increased enrolment. Before Monday’s growth funding promise by the UCP, it was projected that Calgary elementary schools would lose four teachers and high schools would lose upwards of 10 teachers.

EIPS sets 1.1 per cent budget reduction for all schools

Locally, the EIPS expects to see an additional 111 students enter into the system for the 2019-20 school year. In order to protect its reserve funding, which is currently at the lowest recommended “safety net” level of $4 million after trustees approved the withdrawal of another $1.35 million, EIPS asked all schools to reduce their budgets by 1.1 per cent across the board.

“Some school boards have reserves that they can take a risk with and if they come up on the wrong side of (staffing levels), they can dip into it to make up for it, but that won’t be the case for Elk Island Public Schools,” said the EIPS chair.

All school boards must table their budget by the end of June, however, the UCP government will table their budget in the fall.

“We have to budget conservatively and we have to make assumptions that we won’t get funding for growth and that the same funding that we received this year will be the same as next year, that funding has to be spread out to include more students. In doing that, it means that you have to reduce staff because the mass majority of a school’s budget is staffing,” Boymook said.

EIPS trustees will look at each of its schools’ budgets during the June 20 meeting, which will outline if any teacher and assistant jobs will be lost or maintained.

Boymook underlined that the school board cannot continue to be expected to do more with the same amount of money.

“We’re running as efficiently as possible. We constantly look at how we can cost some of our other costs down so we can allocate more money to the classroom, such as scaling back centrally. But we’ve been doing that for so long, that that’s not a place that we can go to to save those additional dollars. We don’t have the reserves that we can go to anymore to do that. So now, we’re seeing those small decreases to the schools and it’s a hard decision to make,” Boymook said, adding the cost of living has increased. “There have been other areas that we have been asked to do more with the same money and that becomes challenging. We continue to communicate that you cannot continue to put more on us and not provide the funds to support us. That continues to be our message and every other school board in the province. We’re no different than anyone else.”

No timeline has been provided as to when the audit will be completed from the Education Ministry.

Editor’s note: This story was updated from the print edition to reflect Monday’s late announcement about growth funding by the UCP.