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School boards await budget direction

May 26, 2015 Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief

While some boards delay budget decisions, others are proceeding with bad news scenarios.

This month’s election of a new majority NDP government means that the 2015 budget proposed by Jim Prentice’s Progressive Conservatives will go unpassed. As a result, Alberta’s school boards are left trying to plan for the 2015/16 school year with conflicting sources of information.

The budget tabled in the legislature on March 26 included rate cuts to a number of school board grants including those used to support aboriginal students, English language learning and students with special needs. Funding levels were also frozen based on the current year’s student population, meaning there would be no additional funds to educate the 12,000 students expected to be added to the school system.

Along with the tabled budget, school boards were provided with a funding manual and allocation rates for the 2015/16 school year, and although the budget was never passed, the funding manual still holds regulatory authority.

The NDP’s election platform, however, contains a commitment to “reverse the reckless Prentice cuts” and “invest to reduce class sizes and deal with growing enrolment in the K–12 system.” The party’s costed budget proposal for 2015/16 includes an additional $104 million for K–12 funding stability and $75 million for class-size reductions and inclusive education.

The NDP proposals have not yet been enacted by the government, and the previous funding manual remains on the books.

School boards would have been compelled to produce a 2015/16 school year budget based on the Prentice numbers by May 31 until premier-designate Rachel Notley issued a statement on May 12.

“I have asked that the outgoing government of Alberta extend the school budget deadline by a month —to the end of June,” said Notley in her statement. “The people of Alberta voted last week for a new government that is committed to funding enrolment growth properly. We will shortly take office and will address this matter as quickly as possible, in good time for the next school year.”

The NDP funding promise was reinforced by Edmonton-Glenora MLA-elect and former Edmonton Public Schools board chair Sarah Hoffman during a speech at the Alberta Teachers’ Association’s Annual Representative Assembly (ARA) on May 16.

“Rather than submitting their budgets by May 31, premier-designate Notley has extended that deadline to the end of June,” Hoffman said. “That gives all of us the time that we need to work together and plan properly so that students can have the right supports this September. Our children’s education is too important to rush into wrong decisions.”

Wait for direction, Ramsankar urges

Association President Mark Ramsankar is urging school boards to wait until they receive further direction from the government before they pass budgets for the next school year.

“Education funding was clearly an election issue, and voters gave the new government a mandate to fund enrolment growth and reverse cuts,” said Ramsankar. “It would be reckless for school boards to pass a budget before they get further direction from the new government.”

Without specific details on funding, school boards are in a difficult position when trying to finalize their budgets with accuracy, said Helen Clease, president of the Alberta School Boards Association (ASBA), in a statement emailed to the ATA News.

ASBA is encouraging school boards to work with Alberta Education, as the department would be able to assist them in finding solutions in consideration of the school board’s specific circumstances, the statement said.

“Some boards seem to be taking that advice, while others are carrying on with previous plans,” Clease said.

Last week the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) announced that it would delay approval of a $1.3 billion interim budget for several weeks. In an interview with the Calgary Herald, CBE chair Joy Bowen-Eyre said, “if we have to wait a little bit because we’re going to get more funding … then we’re willing to wait.”

But Rocky View Schools chair Colleen Munro is calling Notley’s commitment a “goodwill gesture” and is refusing to adjust the board’s budget proposals.

“Practically, it doesn’t ­really help us because we’ve been planning this budget since January,” Munro told the Rocky View Weekly. “We’ve got a proposed (budget) in place and our schools have been working off of the proposed one, which is pre-election, not post-election.”

Unconfirmed reports to the Association suggest that a number of other boards are also carrying forward with budgets that will reduce services for students despite the multiple signals that increased funding is on its way.

Delegates call for budget revisions

Concerns about underbudgeting school boards prompted ARA delegates to pass an emergent resolution calling on school boards to revise their current budgets and staffing models for the 2015/16 school year to reflect the additional funding promised by the government-elect.

Notley and her cabinet, including new education minister David Eggen, were sworn in at the legislature on May 24, and the first cabinet meetings are scheduled for May 27 and 28.

It is not known what directives for school boards might come out of those meetings, but a new provincial budget is not expected until the fall. The incoming government has announced that it intends to reconvene the legislature on June 11 but will use an interim supply bill to finance government operations until a budget is passed in the fall. ❚

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