By J.W. Schnarr
English Language Learners and at-risk youth are facing cuts to their programming if Budget 2015 is implemented. In addition, a freeze on new student funding and a change in how the Horizon School Division board of trustees can access their reserves is going to lead to more cuts in programming, services, and resources, according to School Superintendent Wilco Tymensen.
Vice Chair Bruce Francis called the cuts “ridiculous” in summing up the announcement.
“It makes zero sense,” he said, going on to say the province was behaving like “a dictatorship” in the handling of the budget.
Budget 2015 laid out by the Alberta PCA government includes program spending cuts ranging from 1.9 per cent to 3.1 per cent, with an overall average of 2.7 per cent. These cuts will not be made to teachers, however. Instead, they will need to be made through operations.
The amount could mean close to $1 million, and will result in a significant impact on classrooms. Areas expected to take big hits from the freeze include high needs and at-risk students as well as English Language Learners, and could affect how transportation is handled by the division.
But Tymensen said there are more issues to consider, which will raise that amount to $1.65 million. This includes about $400,000 in amortized funds the board has been spending every year to pay off buildings and projects they funded themselves.
“I think it’s important to recognize that, historically, we have about $400,000 worth of unsupported amortized capital assets,” he said. “What that basically means is we supported buildings that were not supported by Alberta Education. The board has used reserves in the past to support these assets and they are being written off at about $400,000 every year. “The money’s already been spent.”
A new budget process which will limit how school divisions spend their reserves will also limit the board from using that money to balance their budgets, something they have done in the past. According to the board, this will result in a further reduction in programs, services, and resources, as that $400,000 amortization will have to be found elsewhere.
“Primarily, what (the Minister of Education) is saying, is school divisions, and public servants in general are operating in an unsustainable structure. By forcing school divisions to look at these (structures), he’s forcing them to make significant changes operationally so they can come into alignment with the new fiscal reality, which is moving forward in this province because of the oil prices dropping.”
According to material provided by the division, the board’s requirement to remove $1.65 million from its non-teacher instructional expenses equates to a 12.89 per cent cut in funding. The need to make such extensive cuts when reserve funds are available is clearly unprecedented and will result in financial decisions that will see the loss of entire programs and services within Horizon.
“What are the actual effects for classrooms, students, and staff?” he asked. “We don’t yet know. Senior administration has been having in-depth conversations. There are some programs that are looking at a high per cent reduction, so they will simply cease to be. Other programs will have significant cuts.
“This is forcing us to look at making reductions in some pretty important areas.”
In an official response to the budget, board chair Marie Logan said the board has been prudent and responsible with tax funds in the past, the new requirement to seek ministerial approval for using operational reserves runs “contrary to the board’s local autonomy and the vision of Inspiring Education, and severely limits Horizon’s ability to address funding cuts.”
“It handcuffs us during tough economic times,” said Tymensen. “It forces us and leverages us to make drastic, significant, difficult decisions around our physical reality.”
Another worry for the board is the fact that new student funding has been frozen for the next three years, something which wasn’t immediately apparent in the announcement of cuts. There will be no funding for new students over the next three years.
Tymensen said the lack of funding for new students could potentially be a huge hit for many divisions around the province.
“We’re talking about 46 students in our jurisdiction,” he said, adding those students amounted to a direct funding cut of $300,000 before inflation. “I’m sure there are districts out there that have thousands of new students. When you look at the big Metro boards, (it could be) equivalent to a loss of $15 million dollars to them.”
He added as thousands of new students arrive in Alberta schools every year, the money lost through the funding freeze quickly adds up.
“In three years, it will be the equivalent loss of revenue six rural jurisdictions receiving zero dollars,” he said.
He noted the media releases by the province have not told the whole story when it comes to how hard the school budgets will be affected by cuts.
“When you see the press release saying they cut (2.7 per cent), it’s really a two per cent cut and no funding for new students,” he said. “What they fail to tell you is that no funding for new students will feel like at 20 per cent cut moving forward.”
“Whatever (they) do, it always hurts the students,” said Ward 4 trustee Derek Baron.