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ATA strives for honesty in budget assessment

Q & A

March 17, 2021 Dennis Theobald, ATA Executive Secretary

Question: I couldn’t help but notice that the ATA’s response to the provincial budget was much more negative than the reaction of other stakeholders, including superintendents, school boards and secretary–treasurers. Why is the Alberta Teachers’ Association so critical?

Answer: Apparently there was a joke that made the rounds of the CIA’s Beirut Station in the late 1980s: “If you think you understand Lebanon, you haven’t been properly briefed.” Not much of a joke, but a sentiment I share concerning the Alberta provincial budget, at least on budget day.

Budget 2021/22 was at least my 25th over the course of my service with the Association and previously as a senior official in Alberta Education. I can attest to the fact that even with the benefit of experience, deciphering the provincial budget has become an even more onerous task as successive governments have attempted to exert ever greater control over media coverage.

This year, the briefing provided to the Association and other stakeholder groups in advance of the budget release was limited to a 25-minute, high-level presentation to a strictly limited audience (for the ATA, the president and me) with no supporting documents or details being provided and no opportunity to ask questions. In the quickly receding past, things were considerably different: stakeholder representatives and media members were provided access to a lockup where they could pour over the budget documents and make inquiries of officials who were well versed in the intricacies of government and ministry finance. When these individuals emerged from the lockup, they were better able to speak with some confidence about what Albertans could expect as a result of the budget. No such luck for us.

While unpacking the budget is always a complex undertaking, this year’s exercise was made even more challenging by the fact that the government’s fiscal year does not align with the school year and that the COVID-19 pandemic will straddle both. The impact of a variety of transitory, ad hoc funding arrangements, including the provision of significant financial support by the federal government, complicates the picture and makes it very difficult to understand exactly what impact the budget will have on schools beginning next September.

Finally, the budget information that was released was missing an essential component — a detailed and specific accounting of the various grants that will be provided to each individual school district. This information is contained in individual “jurisdiction funding profiles” and in the Funding Manual for School Authorities that sets out what each school board will receive from the province (and remember, school boards are now entirely dependent upon the province for their revenue). School boards will only be able to make basic decisions about staffing, resources and operations when they have that information in hand; that has not yet happened and is not expected to happen before the end of the month.

So in the face of incomplete information, given limited opportunity to review and come to an understanding of the information that was provided, the Association had to be cautious in its early statements to members, the media and the public. We noted with concern an aggregate $27 million drop in instructional spending from 2020/21 levels and observed that we would withhold further judgment until the details around board funding were released. The devil, we said, was going to be in the details.

But to the question: why only the ATA? Well, the school boards, superintendents and business officials seemed to be fixated on one particular request — that they be “held harmless” against declines in enrolment related to the impact of COVID-19. And the government, at least superficially, appears to have delivered on that request, saying that districts facing a decline in enrolment will receive the same level of funding that they did in the last budget year, effectively delaying the implementation of a new funding model that calculates funding based on a multi-year weighted moving average figure for jurisdiction enrolment. So school boards got what they wanted! Right?

Well, maybe. The problem is that the math doesn’t seem to work. It seems that the government is attempting to simultaneously achieve a variety of separate objectives: to hold operational spending constant across government fiscal years; to maintain funding for jurisdictions with decreased enrolment while increasing total transfers to those experiencing enrolment growth; to continue implementation of long-term objectives, including the implementation of the new funding formula and roll out of new curriculum; and to cover residual COVID-19 costs even as the federal government winds up its funding transfers. Its hard to see how all this can be done simultaneously. We’ll have to wait for more information.

The Association is dedicated to being truthful in its comments and to being courageous in speaking that truth to power. Unlike other stakeholder groups, we are not beholden to the provincial government for our funding and can afford to be frank in our statements. Those may sound critical, but they are intended to be honest. Our members expect and deserve nothing less.

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