By George Brown
Less than a week before school bells across the province were to call students back to class, the Alberta government cut this year’s education budget by $80 million to help wrestle with a record $7 billion budget deficit.
Education Minister Dave Hancock outlined details of the cost-cutting measures in a conference call Aug. 27 with the province’s 62 school boards.
“The province needs to find $430 million this fiscal year and make a $2 billion correction for (next year),” Hancock told a telephone news conference. “The ministries have been asked to find savings to offset the projected revenue shortfall.”
The minister said $56 million will come from school boards and the rest from changes to school support programs, including one that helps with the cost of fuel for school buses. The rest of the savings would be made within the education ministry.
For the Wolf Creek Public Schools, the claw back amounts to $975,000.
Superintendent Larry Jacobs said the government will reduce its grant disbursement from Sept. 1 to March 31 and it will be up to the school boards to decide how the claw back will be absorbed locally.
“In essence, what they’re saying is: ‘You decide how we get the money but we’re going to take it.’”
Jacobs said because staff, student schedules and busing contracts are all in place, it would have been too disruptive to try to cut operative costs for the new school year.
Wolf Creek has some flexibility in determining where the $975,000 will come from and reviewed its options. Part of that process involved an analysis of all budgets in the school division and what rationale existed for considering a reduction in funding. The board agreed that all reductions should come from reserves for emergency situations and not from educational programs.
“It will just about wipe out our emergency funds,” Jacobs said, but it will leave funds “critically important for student learning in place.”
Tapping the two operating reserves will allow programs to be completed as originally intended. It was felt that reducing the reserves in other areas would disrupt the long-term viability of the school division’s bus fleet, reduce the division’s technical capability and equity in student learning and reduce the board’s flexibility to assist important and ongoing educational initiatives.
“In this circumstance, the board and senior administration decided this is an emergency and said, “There may be no better time to use it than right now.”
The emergency fund will be reduced from $1 million to approximately $250,000, while the board and system fund for ongoing maintenance of the central office will be reduced from $550,000 to $300,000.
“This gives us a little bit of breathing room,” Jacobs said. “We can let our programs unfold as they were planned and we can now go through a set of forums or discussion groups or however we decide to involve our community and staff to discuss solutions.”
Jacobs knew two weeks ago school divisions would be in some way targeted for some share of the provincial deficit but he thought schools boards might be assessed on a per student basis. Wolf Creek teaches about 7,000 of Alberta’s 500,000 students.
“We knew there was going to be a recovery process we didn’t know how it was going to unfold. We didn’t know what the amount was going to be.”
The ministry of education targeted all of the school divisions in the province of Alberta that had reserve funds in place, Jacobs explained.
“It does look like those boards that were fiscally prudent, that were looking into the future and building reserves to tackle important areas, seem to be the ones that were in the solution process more than others.”
Jacobs expects school divisions will go through some sort of restructuring process again next year. “Education has to share in some of the cuts.”
He expects the government will look at other ways to restructure education department to solve problems.
The reserves that will not be reduced in Wolf Creek Public Schools are those designed to:
• allow appropriate replacement of eight to 10 vehicles in the bus fleet annually;
• evergreen the school division’s technology system every four years;
• provide contingency funds for special needs;
• provide emergency funds for the operation of schools;
• provide for the operation and maintenance of the central office;
• allow schools to set aside funds for special projects
or initiatives; and,
• position the board to augment projects such as AISI (Alberta Initiative
for School Improvement) and the Class Size Initiative.