CBE fears funding shortfall after enrolment dip and rising COVID costs

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Calgary public schools could face funding shortfalls of about $18 million in Thursday’s provincial budget if a new funding framework sees them get less because of lower enrolment.

And with no plans for students under 16 years of age to receive COVID vaccines by the fall, pandemic costs are also expected to rise into the next academic year.

In a letter to Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, the Calgary Board of Education is raising concerns that a new formula that attaches funding to enrolment could mean shortfalls after public schools received fewer students for the 2020-21 school year.

Officials confirmed Wednesday that CBE received about 3,400 fewer students than expected, mostly in the early grades.

The new “weighted moving average” framework, first announced by the provincial government in February 2020 and implemented in September 2020, connects funding to average student enrolment over three years rather than a one-year count in an effort to provide more predictable funding.

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But CBE says their enrolment drop was an anomaly, and occurred only because families of younger students chose to keep them out of school due to fears around COVID-19.

“Our review confirms that nearly all of the difference between projected and actual enrolment can be attributed to families and students choosing to remain outside of the public education system due to safety concerns directly linked to the global pandemic,” CBE chair Marilyn Dennis says in the letter to LaGrange.

“Approximately three-quarters of the difference in enrolment is explained by families of pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students keeping their students at home.”

Dennis added the new weighted funding framework was not constructed to address short-term, one-time fluctuations in enrolment.

“Of specific concern is the funding recovery mechanism in the framework that would see Alberta Education recover funding from school jurisdictions in 2021-22 where the projected enrolment is above the actual enrolment for 2020-21.

“For the CBE, this recovery is estimated to be $18.4 million, all other factors remaining equal.”

LaGrange has responded in her own letter, explaining that the new funding formula is still advantageous and will be used, but that the province will consider CBE’s concerns in Thursday’s budget release.

“Alberta Education is exploring options to mitigate the consequences of pandemic-related enrolment changes. The department will communicate final decisions to school boards as part of the Budget 2021 announcements.”

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But local boards are also concerned about ongoing COVID costs expected to spill over into the 2021-22 school year, with Health Canada still saying children under the age of 16 will not receive vaccinations.

Bryan Szumlas, superintendent with the Calgary Catholic School District, has said that means schools will still be facing costs associated with positive COVID cases, quarantines and safety concerns as they did this year.

Officials with CBE presented a balanced projection of 2020-21 COVID costs and federal grant money received this year through the Safe Return to School Fund.

But according to a report in front of CBE trustees this week, the “serious and dynamic nature of the COVID-19 pandemic” could see costs increase by more than three per cent of total annual expenditures to date.

While CBE’s pandemic costs of $45.7 million for this school year are so far manageable with $45.6 million in federal funding, the evolving nature of the pandemic could change costs quickly.

eferguson@postmedia.com

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