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Editorial: School boards must ensure that reserves support classrooms

November 17, 2015 Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief

Surpluses have grown 47 per cent at the same time as learning conditions have eroded

 By last fall, Alberta’s school boards had accumulated nearly half a billion dollars in operational funding into various restricted and unrestricted surplus pots. This amount is in addition to money saved up for capital projects and other deferred revenues. Last year, the government estimated those values at nearly $300 million more.

Alberta School Boards Association president Helen Clease rightfully notes that government funding has been unpredictable in recent years and that some school boards have used reserves to sustain services for students when government funding has been insufficient or cut.

But, at the same time, the optics are not good for school boards who are clamouring for more funding and simultaneously sitting on enough excess funds to operate all schools in the province for nearly three weeks.

Government funding has been a significant problem. Average per pupil funding in the province fell significantly in September 2013 and just climbed back to pre-2011 levels this school year. At the same time, costs in Alberta have risen by about 6.5 per cent. School boards cannot be blamed for the erosion of service levels.

But the sustaining of services in a time of shrinking government funding should have resulted in the depletion of school board reserves. Unfortunately, the opposite happened. Between August 2012 and August 2014, accumulated surpluses grew by $155 million or 47 per cent.

Similarly, there is no doubt in teachers’ minds that services were not sustained. Schools are rife with stories of growing class sizes, significant classroom complexity and unsupported special needs. Data shows that both class sizes and student-teacher ratios across the province have been steadily increasing.

Since 2011, the student population has grown by 70,000. At the same time, the teaching population grew by only about 2,000. The government is projecting that about 400 teaching positions are being added this fall, but that still leaves us about 2,000 teachers behind where we should be to recover the service levels that were in place in 2011/12.

The amount of money school boards have accumulated in operational surpluses could hire those 2,000 teachers and keep them employed for about two and a half years.

We now have an opportunity to change the trends. The government, with its recent budget, has found funding to ensure that student enrolment growth is funded. In future years, it has promised additional funding to address classroom complexity. But we will also need boards to prioritize funding in the classroom and to allocate funds to address learning conditions.

The auditor general has said that Albertans should be told what the plans are for the use of these surplus funds. I agree and I’m hopeful that new Alberta Education directives will enforce such disclosure.

In the next few weeks, school boards will be releasing their 2014/15 end-of-year financial statements. These documents will include the updated surpluses for the year-end of August 2015. I’m concerned that the half a billion dollars will have grown further in the last year.

In their release of these documents, school boards should be able to demonstrate how they have used surplus funds to enhance learning conditions. Alternatively, they had better provide clear plans on how funds will be used to do so this year. They must be held accountable for this substantial sum of funding. ❚

I welcome your comments—contact me at jonathan.teghtmeyer@ata.ab.caa.

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