By Nikki Jamieson
A provincial act meant to make things easier for the families of students is creating a bit of controversy on a local school board.
During the throne speech ceremonies for the Alberta legislature earlier this year, the first reading of Bill 1: An Act to Reduce School Fees, was passed. It received Royal Assent on May 4. The bill, much like it’s name, had called for the elimination of school fees for Alberta students.
The Horizon School Division had eliminated school fees in 2016, so it appeared as if the new legislation will not effect the school district. However, regulation released earlier this month informed them that they were required to have a policy on school fees, and school divisions would be required to submit fee schedules for every school in their division. In their regular June 20 meeting, the Horizon school board reviewed the proposed policy HIAE — or the Fees policy — but they have just a short time to pass it through.
“What initially started as a fee for a base instructional fee that you charged everybody, has now expanded into a pretty comprehensive list of fees,” said Wilco Tymensen, superintendent for Horizon. “Everything from field trips to extracurricular to supplies to optional courses to transportation, and we have to submit the policy, which has to be approved by the boards — so first reading, second reading, third reading — it has to be approved by June 30.”
The board was the first body to see it, and as of that meeting, had only ten days to review, get feedback from schools and approve it, before sending it off to the province for approval. Any future changes made to the policy will also need provincial approval. They will also need to submit each school’s fee schedule when they submit their budget every year, for approval from the minister of education, David Eggen.
“The interesting thing about the fee schedule is that any fees over five per cent (increase) will have to be approved by the minister in writing, and any fees that we want to, that we are not including in the fee schedule for June of next year, school’s cannot charge.”
Using the example of an unexpected sports tournament, Tymensen said that the school can’t go to players’ families and charge them the X amount of dollars to go to that tournament, as it was not in their fees submission for that year, and the school would have to absorb that cost.
Additionally, the regulations of the act have divisions reporting on fees from third parties associated with the jurisdiction, such as school societies organizing events or alternative programs associated with societies, the division will have to submit those fees as well at the same time, much to some board members’ surprise.
“Legally, they don’t legally have to give it to us. We don’t have control over those organizations, but the ministry has asked us to include them,” said Tymensen. “Because what they’re hoping to do — I’m assuming — is they want to get a really accurate picture of what all of those fees are across the province, and not just what school fees are, but transportation fees, extracurricular fees, alternative program fees and school society fees, so that they get a comprehensive picture across the province of what fees look like for parents.”
The challenge for them is that they are on a short timeframe to get the policy passed, and more regulations are coming in the fall. Additionally, the end of June is typically a very busy time already with school, as it’s the end of the school year.
The fee schedule will have to be detailed, so the cost of each item will have to be broken down to explain what this and that amount of dollars is for. Additionally, any increase of over five per cent of what they had spent the previous year would have to be justified, and any of those increases face the risk of getting denied.
Tymensen said that there was a level of accountability with it, as if you are charging a fee for something, you have to explain what the costs are for. Additionally, any un-utilized money from that fee would have to be returned.
Another new thing for the division is waivers. Tymensen said they had looked at examples from across the province, and in their policy,some of those eligible to have their fees waived include if you receive assistance from Provincial Social Services, your family is eligible for the Alberta Child Health Benefit, your family makes between $24,000 or less per year (single parent with one child) to approximately $44,000 (couple with four children), your child can be signed up, you are a Government Sponsored Convention Refugee or if your children are Treaty Status living below an income threshold based on family size. Principals, under exceptional circumstances, also have the ability to approve a waiver for a family.
The NDP had ran on an election platform that included reducing fees for families, and have provided funding for basic fees in school divisions. Right now, Tymensen said, they are collecting information for future legislation in the fall, but what that will look like “I couldn’t comment”. The ministry will examine every policy and fee schedule for compliance.
Associate superintendent of finance and operations, Phil Johansen, said that from his conversations with some people Alberta Education, they were also surprised by the level of detailed required in the school fee schedules, noting it had “really came out of left field”. One potential worrisome outcome of gathering of this information that was discussed was that in a following year, Alberta Education will say that based on the information gathered, schools can charge X amount of dollars for volleyball fees, even though some aspects of an activity, such as travel, can be more expensive for some school divisions over others.
“The biggest problem that I see is they’re going to deprive students of educational opportunities, because things are going to come along, and you’re not going to be able to do it because you haven’t budgeted for it, you haven’t said these are what the fees are going to be,” said Blair Lowery, Horizon board member. “So you end up not doing things for kids that in the past, you would have done.”
Board members expressed their displeasure over some of the regulations for the policy and break down of fees. The short time frame was bemoaned, as they thought more consultation should be pursued. Horizon board member Bruce Francis questioned what would happen if they didn’t pass first reading today, believing they should have been given more time.
“They want something like this? They better start coming down here with an explanation,” said Francis. “This is so heavy-handed. I’m sorry. I’ve never seen anything (like this).”
Johansen said that the provision had caught everyone off guard, as they were expecting it to effect base instructional fees, with things such as extracurriculars being taken care of in the second phase of the regulations. Tymensen cautioned that if they did not submit the fee schedules in the June 30 submission, the school would not be able to charge its students anything for the entire school year.
“I’d like to see that happen. I’d like to see the entire province, where the parents get told, ‘You don’t have any activities this year because your board didn’t approve our fee policy’,” said Francis.
A debate ensued over the message the first reading might send to those they consult about it. Horizon policies have in the past been heavily amended after first reading, with the board even scrapping their proposed Policy IHG – Respecting Human Rights (LGBTQ), after hearing feedback from parents during a public forum saying their Welcoming, Caring, Respectful, and Safe Learning Environments policy worked just fine, with the board amending their Safe and Caring policy to align with the Minister of Education’s requirements. Board member Terry Michaelis noted that if they passed first policy “we can stop after that if we want”.
Council narrowly passed the first ready of the Fees policy, with Blair Lowry, Bruce Francis and Derek Baron voting against it.
School fee schedules are to be set with consultation with parent councils. The board will then approve the policy, seek consultation and look to perform the second and final readings in a special board meeting on June 27, with the outcome of the meeting unavailable as of press time. Should the policy get approved, then everything would be sent to the minister of education by June 30.