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Finding a solution


As the fallout from the provincial budget continues to settle, it appears the scalpel the United Conservative Party took to government spending wasn’t sharp enough to make precise cuts where education is concerned.

Other ministries are feeling the impacts of outright cuts, while some – like health, seniors and children’s services – were able to take a breath when funding increases were announced. As for education, the government maintained funding to the ministry but changed how some of it was allocated. The amalgamation of several grant programs has contributed to cutbacks for three St. Albert-area school boards, which have warned cuts could be felt in the classroom.

Those cuts are expected to be in the millions, if the province stays the course. St. Albert Public Schools will take a cut of $2.9 million this year and $4.6 million next year. Their total budget for 2019-2020 is $102 million. Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools (GSACRD) will take a cut of $2.5 million this year and $3.6 million next year. Their total budget for 2019-2020 is $71.5 million. Sturgeon Public Schools will take a cut of $3.3 million this year, and their 2019-2020 budget is $74.3 million.

We sat down with Morinville-St. Albert MLA Dale Nally this week for a wide-ranging discussion on provincial matters. Nally pointed to the fact school boards across Alberta have millions of dollars in operating and capital reserve funds that the province wants them to pull from. School divisions with money in reserves shouldn’t make cuts that impact classrooms, he said – they can use the money they’ve set aside as a buffer against that.

Of course, those reserve funds aren’t spread evenly across school boards. Divisions like GSACRD don’t have reserve funds at all, since they don’t have accumulated surpluses to funnel into reserves. Those boards may need a different solution, Nally acknowledged, and the impact of rising school insurance rates – which skyrocketed 287 per cent for GSACRD, costing them an extra $800,000 – needs to be addressed as well.

The school boards are undoubtedly in a tough position – so tough, in fact, that Sturgeon Public chair Terry Jewell wrote a letter to the province warning the budget changes are far more than that division can bear. It’s a warning Nally appears to be heeding, and the rest of the government should follow suit. While the UCP’s focus is strictly on its mandate to eliminate deficit spending within four years, it also bears a responsibility to Alberta Education.

School enrolments and inflation are going up, and funding is going down. School boards are feeling the squeeze, and no two boards are the same. For example, St. Albert Public, serving a primarily urban student base, must manage exploding student populations in neighbourhoods that may not have the school spaces to accommodate that increase. Rural boards like Sturgeon Public face their own set of challenges in transportation costs such as busing students to schools. GSACRD, serving both rural and urban populations, faces both problems.

In this new era of belt-tightening, everyone impacted by the budget has to take austerity measures. But is a one-size-fits-all approach the best option for school boards with varying needs? The answer from our local boards, clearly, is no.