School boards say education cuts lead to dire consequences

Trustees from 19 school boards across Alberta announced that parents should expect class sizes to grow.

Trustees from 19 school boards across Alberta announced on Monday that parents should expect class sizes to grow in the wake of last month’s provincial budget.

School boards from St. Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic Schools (STAR), Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools and Wolf Creek Public Schools share concerns about the effects the budget will have on student success in school divisions with growing populations.

They are asking voters to pressure local candidates and politicians during the campaign to reconsider the education cuts and hopefully affect change.

For STAR Catholic, the 2015-16 school year is projected to have a growth of 5%.

With the continued and consistent enrollment growth also comes the need for new schools and more funding to support the student growth. This in itself leaves an imbalance between school divisions that are not experiencing growth, compared to those which are, officials say.

“This provincial election budget creates a two-tier education system penalizing the divisions across Alberta that are experiencing especially strong growth,” said STAR Catholic Board Chair John Tomkinson.

The more challenging aspect of the provincial budget for STAR is the three-year funding freeze on any enrollment growth, which will be a devastating blow to the school division, he said.

STAR has seen a substantial increase in enrollment over the past five years with student numbers jumping from 2,669 to 3,517.

“Because of that growth, divisions such as STAR Catholic shoulder a much greater percentage of the education cuts than others, creating inequality in education funding,” said Tomkinson.

STAR predicts a funding shortfall of $1.8 million next year. With the carried deficit, increased growth and two new planned schools, the budget shortfall will grow and create dire circumstances.

“With the recent capital projects we are blessed to have received, STAR Catholic will have the capacity and facilities to add nearly 1,400 students in the next two years,” said Tomkinson. “In this election budget, those are now all unfunded students and that is completely unattainable and unsustainable.”

To maintain current service levels and to accommodate the increased number of students, STAR is looking at a cost of $41.5 million, which leans toward $1.8 million in anticipated cuts. To cover the shortfall, in the future STAR could be looking at reducing classroom support, enlarging classroom sizes and making cuts to programs that affect the most vulnerable types of students.

“It’s still to be determined,” said Tomkinson. “But without acting on the enrollment growth, it will reduce our stability and with limited resources, it leaves us in an undesirable position.

“For the future of an equal, adequate and sustainable education system that serves all children, now is the time for all concerned about our children’s future to speak out. This election campaign we are asking everyone concerned about education in Alberta to discuss this issue with the candidates in your area and send a clear message to the government that our kids should be a priority.”

The PC government also released a response on Monday, stating the school boards were not providing the full picture to Alberta parents.

“This year, my department reduced its operating budget by nine per cent and directed these savings to the front lines,” said Minister of Education Gordon Dirks. “I’ve been clear all along that school boards will be permitted to use their reserve funds if needed to meet front-line service needs in the coming fiscal year while they find savings in non-teacher costs — that is what this money is there for. These are school boards, not school banks.”

Dirks added that the 2015 provincial budget asked school boards to find 2.7% cost reduction in administrative and non-teacher savings, without affecting teacher positions. School boards are expected to use their reserve accounts if needed in the coming year during the transition.

Wolf Creek Public Schools could not be reached for comment at the time of publication.

news@lacombexpress.com