Education budget contains hidden cut

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Tuesday’s provincial budget may have spared the Education department the type of cuts seen elsewhere but school boards are still in a tight spot over teacher salaries, say local trustees.

Education got about the same funding as last year, meaning the budget contains no money for school boards to pay for a roughly three per cent increase that teachers will be owed on Sept. 1.

“Although it’s a zero budget, really it’s like a cutback,” said Morag Pansegrau, board chair for St. Albert Protestant Schools.

“It’s going to put us all in a very tight spot,” she said.

Pansegrau feels the government should have built the teacher increases into the budget.

Catholic board chair Dave Caron was also concerned about the three per cent increase but said he was confident the premier and education minister were working on a solution.

“I know they are proactively attacking that. We’ll wait and see and take them at their word,” Caron said.

Education Minister Dave Hancock said he’s asked school boards not to adjust their staffing levels due to budget issues.

Over the coming months he’ll meet with the Alberta Teachers’ Association and Alberta School Boards Association to negotiate some sort of long-term agreement that will help contain salary costs.

Ideally, he’d like to open up the five-year agreement that ties teacher salaries to the Alberta Weekly Earnings Index. The agreement expires in 2012. The ATA says it will not open the agreement so Hancock is looking at other avenues.

“It’s more likely that we would try to find some way to extend those agreements and balance off the increases this year with how much the increase is [after 2012],” Hancock said. “Those salaries may have to go to zero.”

Hancock will be seeking money from the Treasury Board to cover a recent arbitration decision that has awarded teachers a further one per cent increase for the current school year, but he said he won’t be asking for money to cover the three per cent increase that will be due in September.

There are several reasons why this increase wasn’t included in the budget, he said, explaining the figure wasn’t known when the budget was finalized, the previous year’s agreement was still in arbitration and these are lean economic times.

Other questions

The budget contains other question marks that local jurisdictions are analyzing. One of those is a change in the way class-size funding is allocated. This could have a significant impact on the Catholic division but officials are still investigating, Caron said.

Another change that could affect local schools is a cut to funding for the three-year Health Pathways pilot. Three local jurisdictions have high schools participating in this program. Funding for the third year will be cut, saving the department $4 million.

It’s hoped the program will roll into regular Career and Technology Studies programming, said Alberta Education spokesperson Kathy Telfer.

The program resulted in a new fitness centre and health care area at Bellerose Composite High School, as well as health-related courses for students.

Enrolment has been strong so the district will continue to offer the programs even though the pilot money will dry up after the second year, said superintendent Barry Wowk.

“I would have been really comfortable with three years to get it to the point that it’s sustainable but I guess two years is better than nothing,” he said.

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