Cutting through confusion: explaining Alberta’s changing rules for school board funding

The Alberta government says every school board is receiving a funding increase for the coming school year. Yet, school boards say they’re strapped for cash and are cutting teaching and support staff jobs — even in the middle of a pandemic.

Observers could be forgiven for feeling confused by apparently conflicting messages about the state of school board funding.

Thanks to a new school funding formula that begins in September, the government is also changing how it calculates the amount of money granted to each of the province’s 61 school boards. Not all boards are affected the same way.

The incertitude is no accident, said Jonathan Teghtmeyer, spokesperson for the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

“They’re more than happy, it seems, to play this confusion game and to leave it unclear as to what pots of money are where,” Teghtmeyer said in a Thursday interview. “And so that makes it very hard for stakeholders and objective third parties to really understand what’s going on.”

The association has been closely monitoring money flowing to every public, Catholic and Francophone school division. Teghtmeyer said the education minister and government spokespeople leave out key contextual information when they talk about increases to school funding.

“They’re trying to sell the notion that school boards are better funded now than they were before, or they traditionally have been. And that, just simply, is not the case,” he said on Thursday.

As a result of changes to funding, the association estimates there will be about 1,400 fewer full-time teaching positions in Alberta schools this fall. Fixed costs like heat, transportation and insurance rose while the United Conservative Party government capped spending. The only place left to cut is staff, he said.

Similar funding, shifting conditions

Since they assumed office in May 2019, the government has pledged to maintain or increase education funding. Looking at the overall education budget, they have done this so far, by spending $8.2 billion last budget year and $8.3 billion this year.

Critics say with growing numbers of students and rising costs, it’s not enough.

The government did not respond to most of CBC News’ funding questions.

The ATA has created  a “budget tracker” that itemizes funding from the provincial education ministry to all school boards for the last few years.

The analysis found that the government gave school boards $126 million less in operational funding for the 2019-20 school year than they received the previous year. Teghmeyer said $118 million of that was restored for the upcoming school year, which leaves boards collectively $8 million short of where they were two years ago.

That’s a problem, he says, because there will be roughly 30,000 more students enrolled in Alberta schools next year compared to 2018-19.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange says funding is increasing for all school boards this year compared to last year. But some boards still have less funding to work with than they had two years ago, and more children to educate. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)

When the ATA first released their analysis last February, LaGrange’s press secretary said a new funding formula was coming that would be more predicable and ensure school funding ended up in classrooms.

That new formula is contentious. It bases grants on three years of student enrolment, so that shrinking rural school boards lose money more slowly as the number of students declines.

Edmonton public school board chair Trisha Estabrooks said in a Friday interview the formula punishes school divisions growing faster, which she thinks is unfair.

“We’ll never be accurately funded or properly funded, adequately funded, for the number of students that we have in our classrooms,” Estabrooks said.

A dip in funding last year, combined with rising costs and more students who received just partial funding prompted the board to cut 429 educational assistants and 178 teaching positions for the coming year. 

“The facts are that we are going into a year where we’re having to pay for the cost of COVID using our reserves,” she said. “We’ve been put in a scenario with no additional funding.”

Edmonton public estimates it needs at least $30 million more to adopt minimal pandemic precautions and extra staffing. The board has sent a request to government.

Sandra Palazzo, chair of Edmonton Catholic Schools, said that division needs between $10 and $15 million for similar COVID-19 adaptations.

Edmonton Catholic did not cut jobs for the coming year.

“We are not going to compromise the education of our students,” Palazzo said. “We’re going to continue to advocate for more money, obviously. And if we can’t make a go of it, then of course government is just going to have to step in, and I believe that’s going to be the scenario for all divisions in Alberta, not just Edmonton Catholic.”

Enrolment in some boards rising faster than funding

Since the new formula affects boards differently, CBC News looked at six school divisions to gauge how they’re affected.

Using funding documents provided to boards by Alberta Education, and enrolment figures from division reports to the government, it’s possible to calculate roughly how much funding is changing per student.

Although Edmonton public will have about $5.3 million more to spend in this coming school year than it did two years ago, 6,700 more full-time students are expected to be enrolled. That’s the equivalent of adding three large high schools to the system. CBC News calculated the board will receive $691 less per student than it did two years ago.

Edmonton Catholic Schools will have about $7.6 million more than it received from the government in 2018. It is also losing 1,438 pre-kindergarteners — about three quarters of the number from last year — due to government changes to the Program Unit Funding for small children with disabilities. But K-12 enrolment is still growing, leaving the division with about $150 less per student.

And while every school board may be receiving a boost in provincial funding compared to last year, some will still receive less funding than they did two years ago.

Among them are the Calgary Board of Education, which will receive $9.6 million less, and Calgary Catholic Schools, which will receive nearly $3 million less.

Bump is temporary, bridge funding ends

One of the reasons all boards are receiving more funding next year is because the government didn’t stick solely to the new funding formula. To allow boards time to adjust, Alberta Education tossed in what it calls bridge funding for 2020-21. It helps ensure each board receives an increase, and will help increase overall funding to school boards by $120 million this year.

But bridge funding will expire. Edmonton Catholic school division chief financial officer James Grattan said his division received a $30.3 million boost for the coming year. That’s almost seven per cent of the division budget. The following year, they expect half that amount, and in 2022-23, there will be no boost, he said.

“I’m concerned,” board chair Palazzo said. “When the bridge funding is finished, it’s going to a very challenging situation.”

The government has also instructed school boards to dip into their savings reserves to pay for any additional costs to adapt to COVID-19. As of Aug. 31, 2019, there were $392 million in those reserves.

Teghtmeyer said many school boards already dipped into those reserves before the pandemic to keep staffing levels the same — at the behest of government. Some of those savings may have since been depleted. Alberta Education was unable to provide a more up-to-date number on Friday.

Edmonton public has about $20 million in reserve, most or all of which the board will likely spend responding to COVID-19.

There were other changes affecting funding for services to school children. The government ended the Regional Collaborative Services Delivery model. That model allocated $72 million annually for health and social services students could access through their schools. The money was funnelled directly back to school boards.

Further, none of the calculations account for $128 million the government redirected to the pandemic health response by ordering school boards to lay off support workers in May and June.

Although the messages may be seemingly contradictory, Estabrooks said there is no confusion at Edmonton Public Schools. There will be six per cent less money, per student, than two years ago, she said.

“While we do see an increase in the amount of dollars, it’s just a shifting of pots of money,” she said. “It’s a good question to ask the province. We’re clear on our numbers.”

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