By J.W. Schnarr
There is no money in the Horizon School Division 2015 revised school budget to hand out awards to deserving students and teachers, and board members are blaming provincial budget cuts to education.
“It’s our understanding from the Ministry (of Education) that (handing out awards) should not continue,” said School Superintendent Wilco Tymensen. “We shouldn’t be using taxpayer dollars and giving out scholarships and awards for students. We should be using those dollars to pay for a general education for kids.”
“What’s ridiculous to me is the government saying we can’t even give awards out to students or staff,” said Ward 4 Trustee Derek Baron. “That’s ridiculous. The government is out to lunch on this budget. “Hopefully, we have some change with this new election.”
Further, English language learning and distance learning allocations are set to take a big hit in their funding.
A revised 2015 budget, was passed at the board’s April 21 meeting, based on the mandate of cuts to operations handed down by the Jim Prentice PC government shortly before calling a May 5 election.
Tymensen said with a $45 million HSD budget, the awards represent just a small amount of the funding.
“I don’t think it’s a huge savings at all,” said Tymensen. “It’s a fairly small number.” He added the notion of celebrating the accomplishments of students for excellence is one way to keep students and staff interested and excited about education.
“When you start nickel and diming, and impacting the morale and the motivation with either our staff or our student population and parents, it just creates a really negative, toxic atmosphere.”
The budget also includes reductions in plant operation and maintenance (utilities), infrastructure maintenance and renewal (building upkeep) and student transportation, totaling a further $850,000. The Board also approved a 12.5 per cent reduction to board and system administration expenses, roughly $250,000, in addition to a further $250,000 provincial budget reduction to that area.
Schools in the division will be hit with a three per cent reduction, but as the province has mandated there is to be no reduction in teacher allocations and supports for high-needs students, those cuts will actually translate to a 30 per cent reduction in non-teacher portions of their budgets.
This 30 per cent reduction in school budgets includes but is not limited to:
Clerical hours, 100 per cent reduction; support staff discretionary hours, 100 per cent reduction; high school CEU enhancements, 100 per cent reduction; distance learning allocations, 50 per cent reduction; English language learning allocations, 40 per cent reduction; school inclusive education allocations for mild/moderate students, 32 per cent reduction; school decentralized budgets, 10 per cent reduction; librarian hours, 10 per cent reduction; outreach grants, 10 per cent reduction.
Tymensen said in making the decision where cuts should be made, a number of stakeholders were consulted.
“We had conversations with parents, students, teachers and community members, principals, and board members to talk about where those cuts could be,” he said.
The other big issue surrounding the budget has been the freeze on funding for new students, which is already promising deficits in urban areas in the millions of dollars. HSD is expecting to see 50 new students in the 2015-2016 school year, which Tymensen said will equate to $400,000 less funding.
“We have a legal obligation teach, but no funding for about 12,000 kids coming into schools in Alberta next year,” he said. “That’s about $100 million worth of funding and none of those kids will be funded.”
The direction right now from the government is that it will happen for the next three years. “What that equates to is that six jurisdictions our size will have zero dollars to operate. There are only 60 jurisdictions.”
The new Education Act is going to give local divisions more power to take care of their own business, and even goes so far as to grant school boards the rights of natural persons. With the mandates laid out in the budget, however, Tymensen said it appears as though the government is working to remove some of that local autonomy it had earlier championed.
“They specifically restricted areas we can cut and areas we can’t cut,” said Tymensen. “In my mind, it’s a danger.” he compared the action to that of a parent directing a doctor on where to make cuts during a surgery on their child.
“The best way to impact and have the money spending in the right location is to allow local autonomy. The board’s frustration is that the province has removed local autonomy.”
“We have reserves in place specifically meant for these situations, and suddenly we don’t have dollar amounts. We can’t use them.”
Tymensen said with the election, there is a lot of uncertainty with regards to the provincial education budget.
“With the new election, depending on which party gets in or what happens, there might be a new education budget a week later,” he said. “We might be back to the drawing board in a week.”
“The message the board wants to send to the government is that they should have the flexibility to address their economic situation with full autonomy.”
Ward 3 Trustee Blair Lowry said in passing the budget, he was concerned about some of the cuts being made.
“We’re being directed, it seems, by the government now, to not fund student awards with a lack of money,” he said. “I understand we need to pass this. I just I just wanted you to know that I have reservations with some of the things that this (budget) includes.”
“It definitely doesn’t enhance morale,” said Vice Chair Bruce Francis.