ATA president Mark Ramsankar shares his thoughts on the provincial budget at the Alberta legislature on Thursday, March 16.
New school projects also announced
Not a lot of surprises for education were contained within the provincial budget tabled by Finance Minister Joe Ceci on March 16. Government representatives have long spoken about their intent to maintain school board funding in the face of increasing enrolment and have also indicated that they would fund the lost revenue facing school boards as a result of the implementation of Bill 1, which is set to ban up to 25 per cent of fees currently charged to parents.
Entitled Working to Make Life Better, Budget 2017 estimates that the government will run a $10.3 billion deficit in order to fund $54.9 billion in program expenses while also spending an additional $9.2 billion on capital in 2017/18.
The consolidated education budget includes $8.3 billion in spending, 95 per cent of which is consumed by school board operations. The capital plan will include $500 million over the next four years on new school projects already announced and an additional $488 million on schools that were announced on March 21.
In response to the budget, Alberta Teachers’ Association president Mark Ramsankar called on school boards to ensure funding for growth is used to enhance service for students in classrooms.
“The government has made a commitment to stabilize funding and to ensure that rapid student enrolment growth continues to be funded,” Ramsankar said. “We applaud them for their effort to protect the learning conditions in Alberta’s classrooms.”
Budget documents project student enrolment will increase by 1.8 per cent in 2017/18, which will amount to 12,000 students being added to Alberta’s classrooms. The budget also projects student enrolment increases of 2.2 per cent in 2018/19 and 2.5 per cent in 2019/20. If these projections hold up, the student population will have increased by nearly a quarter in the 2010s alone.
“Education is one of the most important investments we can make in our future,” said Ceci in his budget address. “We are fulfilling our commitment to fund enrolment growth, maintain a stable teacher workforce, and cut school fees to make life more affordable.”
But Ramsankar is concerned that increases in funding have not been used by school boards to hire sufficient staff to maintain learning conditions. Ramsankar says that the student population has grown by 16 per cent since 2009, while over the same period the teaching force in Alberta has grown by only seven per cent.
“Classrooms are overcrowded and students with special needs require greater support,” he said. “School boards have the funding available to hire the teachers and educational assistants that are urgently needed. Correcting this hiring lag will improve the conditions of learning for students and the conditions of practice for teachers.”
Alberta School Boards Association president Mary Martin welcomed the funding for enrolment growth but described the absence of inflationary increases as a chronic problem that needs to be addressed.
“Overall instructional funding is being eroded because it has not kept up with inflation, forcing school boards to continue doing more with less,” Martin said. “There is more to stable funding than providing for new classrooms and paying for new students.”
The Wildrose opposition called the budget a debt-fueled disaster for families, one that’s packed with more of the same failed policies.
“The NDP government is passing the bill onto our children to pay for a spending-bender that will leave us with $71 billion of debt before the next election,” said Wildrose shadow finance minister Derek Fildebrandt. “This neglect of even basic fiscal controls and recklessness with borrowed money will take generations to recover from.”
School fee reduction
Budget 2017 included $54 million in funding for school boards for 2017/18 to help them deal with lost revenue from the reduction of fees that would be imposed by Bill 1. The Act to Reduce School Fees would eliminate school boards’ ability to levy fees for instructional materials or supplies, or transportation fees for students who live greater than 2.4 kilometres from their designated schools.
“Through Budget 2017, school boards would receive funding to offset the loss of fee revenues as a result of Bill 1,” said Education Minister David Eggen. “This would help ensure that boards would be able to maintain — or increase — the education programming they provide to students.”
Ramsankar applauded the reduction of school fees and the introduction of funds to replace them because it helps reduce the barrier to access public education that the fees impose. However, he is concerned with the impacts of how this expense is being funded.
Ministry officials are planning to fund half of the cost through a reduction of staffing, travel and other costs within the department of education with another third funded from savings in other ministries. The remaining $5.6 million will achieved by a reduction in the current cap on credit enrolment units (CEUs) for high school students. Currently, high schools are not funded for credits students enrol in above 60 credits per year, but that cap will be reduced to 45 CEUs for 2017/18. Alberta Education says that students currently average about 37 credits per year. Schools under the high school redesign funding model will not be affected by this change.
Ramsankar is concerned about the impact this change will have on some schools, particularly rural high schools, that have come to rely on high CEU generation in order to make up for deficiencies in the funding framework.
New school projects announced
Budget 2017 included an announcement that the government would start construction work on 24 new school infrastructure projects in 2018/19, designed to be open by September 2021. A followup announcement on March 21 outlined the details of 26 new projects.
Ten new schools will be built across the province with four schools slated for Calgary, three for Edmonton, two in Airdrie and one in Lethbridge. Nine replacement schools will be built in order to replace and expand aging schools in Banff, Rivière Qui Barre, Grande Prairie, Irma, Iron Springs, Sherwood Park, Medicine Hat and two sites in Edmonton. Seven modernizations will also be started to make improvements to deteriorating buildings or to make mechanical or functional upgrades.
These new project announcements are in addition to the 139 school projects that have previously been announced and are yet to be completed.