By Cole Parkinson
With the 2020 provincial budget released by the United Conservative government, school boards across the province can breathe a little easier.
Education funding is remaining steady at $8.3 billion and it introduces a new funding model to ‘give school boards more flexibility in how they manage their resources while making the best use of public funds for students.’
The province will no longer fund by the student, opting to instead fund by division, based on a three-year moving average enrollment, where school boards will have local autonomy to allocate funds to meet needs.
“When one looks at the bottom line, Horizon will be receiving an increase in operational funding for 2020/2021. This is good news given that the board needs to find revenue to replace the funds it has expensed in 2019/2020 from board reserves. The board also needs to address the 215 per cent increase in insurance, and review how it will replace the supports and services for some of our highest-needs students given the loss of RCSD (Regional Collaborative Service Delivery),” said Horizon School Division board chair Marie Logan in a press release sent to the Times. “We appreciate the government’s decision to revamp the previous model which we believe had not kept up with the changing context within Alberta. We believe the new model prioritized education and recognizes that students in rural Alberta deserve a quality education that prepares them to be contributing members of society.”
The update also sees rural schools with enrollments between 35 and 155 students fall into one of five groups and also be block funded while school building maintenance funding will have two different funding rates, based on whether the space is utilized or under-utilized.
Other funding sources such as program unit funding for early learning students with significant delays, English language learners, and First Nations, Metis, and Inuit will remain in the new model, as does contextual grants that level the playing field across the province.
The added flexibility for school boards is more than welcomed by the Horizon trustees.
“School boards are in the best position to determine how local resources are deployed. Boards have been given less money but more flexibility to meet local priorities and to maximize resources,” continued Logan. “We will continue to make local decisions that we believe are in the best interest of our students.”
When the budget did drop, Horizon didn’t see any big surprises from what they had expected.
“No large surprises as the ministry had been very collaborative and had reached out to all boards and system leaders in the province to seek feedback about the new model as they were developing it,” added Wilco Tymensen, superintendent of schools.
Cardston-Siksika MLA Joseph Schow says while school boards were anxious to find out how much funding they would get from the new budget, the government was serious about keeping everything steady.
“There were no surprises there. People were holding their breath and we kept saying that education funding is going to be the same. We made that commitment and that is the reality. Education is vitally important to the future of our province and we recognize that. That has remained unchanged and in fact, every school board across the province has seen an increase in funding this year from the last budget and that is really just to help people understand that funding for education is about sustainability and predictability. That is what I heard a lot from my constituents and school boards.”
“They just want to know what they are getting and what they can plan for in the next school year. I absolutely back our education minister (Adriana LaGrange), she is doing a tremendous job fighting for the students in the province.”
With a reduction in the deficit of about $200 million for 2020, Taber-Warner MLA Grant Hunter explained that while the UCP was looking for ways to slash the $6.8 billion shortfall, they also realized maintaining service funding was vital.
“That’s exactly what we tried to do with this budget, is try to be able to tighten our belt, as most Albertans have been asked to tighten their belts. We’ve taken the same approach in government in trying to make sure that where we’re trying to find efficiencies, we’re finding efficiencies, but we’re still trying to provide the proper wrap-around services in health and education, and all the services that we provide.”
Education property tax, which supports all public and separate school students as well as paying for instructional costs, including teacher salaries, textbooks and other classroom resources, see a rise in 2020.
As indicated in the fall budget tabled last year by the UCP government, the 2020 version sees an increase by 3.4 per cent in 2020-2021.
“Basically, the increase that Albertans will see is about three per cent, and that is basically inflation plus population growth. This is actually the standard practice. I know the NDP are lighting their hair on fire on this one, which is quite hypocritical of them because I think that in 2016 they raised it seven per cent. So I think it’s interesting that they would call us out for increasing by inflation plus population — which is again standard practice — when one year they actually increased it by seven per cent,” explained Hunter.
The 2020 Capital Plan also has an investment of $1.5 billion over the next three years to support new schools and modernization projects currently underway in Alberta.