The Alberta government’s decision to freeze education funding has led to a frenzy of cost-cutting at school boards that had expected new money to deal with a flood of additional students that shows no sign of abating.
Alberta’s Opposition New Democrats said on Monday that an analysis shows school boards had thought they would receive a $210-million funding boost this academic year in the first budget from Premier Jason Kenney’s government. But the budget, unveiled last October, contained no new money for the 15,000 more students who entered the province’s schools, leading to classrooms that are increasingly crowded.
School boards have cut budgets for infrastructure and transportation, and dipped into rainy day funds. Calgary’s public school board planned to cut 317 teaching positions, but was given one-time permission in late 2019 to use maintenance cash to pay salaries.
The province has said it will freeze education funding at last year’s level until 2023. In addition, Mr. Kenney’s government is also expected to unveil a new formula for school funding later in 2020. A government report suggested allocating more money to top-performing schools, to the detriment of those where students struggle.
Sarah Hoffman, the NDP’s education critic, said Education Minister Adriana LaGrange and Finance Minister Travis Toews were not being truthful when they assured schools throughout 2019 they would receive more money for enrolment growth. Days before the provincial budget was unveiled, Mr. Toews repeated a line with reporters that he used for much of 2019: “We have committed to maintain school funding and, in fact, to fully fund increased enrolment.”
Ms. Hoffman said the government’s funding falls $210-million short of that promise.
The New Democrats say the province’s decision to scrap two school grants and reduce fees paid to schools represent a cut of $428-million. The government gave schools a one-time grant of $153-million to make up for it, leading to a $210-million shortfall.
Ms. Hoffman said some school boards are considering shortening school days or asking the government to approve additional holidays for students.
“All of this could be undone if the government actually funded education as they said they would, if they funded enrolment growth and they kept their promise to actually increase education funding or maintain it, instead of cutting hundreds of millions,” she told reporters on Monday morning in Edmonton.
Alberta Teachers’ Association president Jason Schilling said his group calculated the shortfall at $275-million. Every school in Alberta is receiving on average $203 less a student this year, he said. It is not clear why the teachers’ association and the NDP came up with different figures.
“School boards have said they’ve been able to cover the shortfall for this year, but I’m really worried about the next year. The minister and the government has said they’ll keep funding the same for three years. But year after year, we’ll have 15,000 new students come into the system,” Mr. Schilling said.
Teachers being asked to do more with less also face more years without salary increases. An arbitrator ruled on Friday that teachers should get no retroactive pay raises from 2018 to 2020, as the union had requested. “We’ve had seven zeros in the last eight years,” Mr. Schilling added.
Ms. LaGrange’s office said the government has made no cuts to education. The minister was unavailable for comment, but her spokesman said the $428-million in cancelled grants and reduced fees was given to the schools to help with enrolment growth.
“We have honoured our commitments to Albertans and maintained education funding at $8.223-billion, equal to last year’s actuals, and the base instruction rate for each student remains the same,” press secretary Colin Aitchison said. “Parents and families can be assured that, despite fear-inducing rhetoric from the NDP, their children will continue to receive a world-class, high-quality education.”
Ms. Hoffman and Mr. Schilling say the government has broken its promise to fund increased enrolment. With overall budget increases stuck at zero, moving money to pay for enrolment while cutting another area makes for less money at the end of the day, Mr. Schilling said. “What they’ve done is a shell game, they’ve just moved money around.”
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