Budget 2021 maintains flat funding for K-12 education amid low enrolment

‘Parents chose to keep their kids at home because we gave them that option. But I don’t think that will happen again this fall’

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Despite pandemic fears resulting in low enrolment for K-12 schools in some jurisdictions, including Calgary, Alberta Education says it will maintain funding levels comparable to last year in Budget 2021.

A closer look at the numbers sees a slight bump in operating expenses from last year’s $8.32-billion operating budget to $8.34 billion this year.

But with COVID costs still expected to rise in schools where students under 16 years of age have not yet been approved for vaccination, stakeholders have said schools will need more support than ever as the pandemic continues to take hold into the next academic year.

Medeana Moussa, spokeswoman for Support Our Students, said there is a stark irony in the province not increasing funding for schools because parents are choosing to keep kids home.

“This is disaster capitalism in full force — taking advantage of a disaster, like COVID, to actually move forward your agenda, and in this case that is undermining public education.

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“Fewer students are attending, because fewer students feel safe. And the reason schools are not safe is because they are underfunded.

“This government continues to do nothing but the bare minimum for schools.”

Thousands of staff and students have seen their school year disrupted from having to isolate at home because of COVID-19 positive notifications in their classrooms.

Advocates have said much of that is due to crowded schools, which don’t expect to receive any new funding to reduce class sizes.

Bryan Szumlas, superintendent for the Calgary Catholic School District, said schools will still need further funding this fall for the ongoing challenges around COVID, but boards have not yet heard whether that money will come from the province or the federal government.

“We will see things looking pretty much the same in the fall as we do now, with costs for cleaning and for PPE, and online supports.”

Capital projects will receive $288 million in new funding, including 14 new schools across the province and $60 million for modular classrooms to expand existing schools.

In 2020-21, 18 school projects were completed at a cost of almost $400 million and another 19 schools will be completed through 2021-22 with a cost of approximately $400 million. There is also more than $1 billion in funding for 43 additional school projects underway.

The UCP government will outline which communities will get new schools in the coming weeks.

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Calgary will likely get six new schools, to be divided between the Calgary Board of Education and the Catholic board.

School boards have been worried that funding would be reduced this year because of low enrolment after the province introduced a new funding framework or the “Weighted Moving Average” formula that ties funding to enrolment averages over three years.

CBE in particular saw 3,400 fewer students than expected this year, most of them in the earliest grades, with parents fearing the pandemic and keeping them at home.

CCSD chair Mary Martin added they too saw a dip of about 2,100 in younger students attending this year.

“Parents chose to keep their kids at home because we gave them that option. But I don’t think that will happen again this fall.”

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said in a statement Thursday that despite the low enrolment and the new funding framework, education funding will be “maintained” within the next year.

“Part of protecting lives and livelihoods during this pandemic is a safe, well-funded and high-quality education system and that’s exactly what our government is providing,” LaGrange said.

“This school year we did not penalize school boards for the reduced enrolment they experienced during COVID-19, nor will we in the upcoming school year. I am proud to uphold our commitment to maintain education funding, especially with the fiscal challenges the province is facing.”

In spite of this year’s enrolment blip, Budget 2021 expects enrolment to rebound by the 2021-22 academic year.

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And with growth expected to continue this fall, school boards would hope to get more funding from the federal government after benefiting from the Safe Return to School Fund rolled out in two phases this year.

CBE benefited from $48 million, while the CCSD received $22 million, most of it going towards online school supports, extra staffing, increasing cleaning in schools and PPE.

But education officials with the province also added that local school boards are experiencing “robust financial health,” reporting a total of $384 million in operating reserves at the end of the 2019-20 school year.

According to a report going before CBE trustees earlier this week, finance officials are concerned about increased costs connected to COVID-19 rolling into next year.

Health Canada has confirmed that vaccines approved for use so far, including Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, are only available to Canadians aged 16 older. Older populations have been prioritized, and vaccine safety and effectiveness in people younger than 16 have not yet been established.

eferguson@postmedia.com

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