Categories: Provincial News

Budget cuts help for vulnerable students

St. Albert and Sturgeon County will be out $180,000 for special-needs students if the provincial budget passes as is, say school officials.

This week’s provincial budget included $7.8 billion for school board operations, or about four per cent more than last year, as well as $1.1 billion in capital for new schools and modernization projects.

It also includes a subtle cut to the St. Albert and Sturgeon region in the form of an end to the three-year transition funding window for the Regional Collaborative Services Delivery (RCSD) Model.

About four years ago, the province amalgamated many provincial agencies and school boards into 17 RCSD regions to co-ordinate student support services, said Bev Baker-Hofmann, student services supervisor for St. Albert Public and member of the leadership team for the St. Albert and Sturgeon RCSD. These regional organizations now fund speech-language pathologists, behavioural consultants and other specialists that help students with mental health, physical disability or family issues.

Baker-Hofmann said that when some regions, such as St. Albert-Sturgeon, ended up with less provincial money after the amalgamation, the province agreed to make up the difference, but said up front that they would only do so for three years.

“We were hoping they might change their mind, but they did not,” she said.

The upshot is that the St. Albert-Sturgeon RCSD’s budget will be down nine per cent or $180,394 next year, Baker-Hofmann said. The leadership team was now reviewing its operations to see where these cuts would fall.

“We’re trying to minimize the impact to students in our schools.”

Other cuts?

The province did not announce any new schools or modernizations in St. Albert, but Greater St. Albert Catholic superintendent David Keohane said his board wasn’t looking for any.

“We’ve had all our capital plans met,” he said.

“We’re batting a thousand.”

But the budget does put the St. Albert Public board’s new high school space solution project on the unfunded list, which worried superintendent Barry Wowk.

“I’d be concerned if it wasn’t going forward,” Wowk said of the study, adding that it might still happen as an operational project.

The board had asked the province to help them study whether it should build a third high school or expand Bellerose and Paul Kane to manage its growing population, Wowk said. The province approved the study last year, but later tabled it.

The board had seen a 30 to 35 per cent jump in its K-to-6 enrolment in the last five years, and that’s created a big wave of students rolling towards high school, Wowk said.

“In two to three short years, we’re having a high-school space issue.”

The budget includes provisions to implement Bill 1, which, if passed, would eliminate certain school fees and save Albertans $54 million a year.

While most of the cash for this change would come from Alberta Education efficiencies, Wowk said the department had also proposed to reduce the number of high-school credits it funded per student each year to 45 from 60, but only for schools that were not part of the high-school redesign project (which encourages innovative learning methods such as flex-blocks).

Wowk said he was still studying which schools and students this change would affect, and noted that it could be dropped before Bill 1 passes.

“The biggest thing it will affect, I think, will be the summer schools,” Wowk said, as most students wouldn’t get 60 credits during regular school.

Wowk and Keohane said they were glad to see the province commit $20 million in cash to build school playgrounds over four years, noting that it was the first time the province had stepped up to build such facilities.

“Playgrounds are an integral part of recreational life for a K-to-3 and even an upper-elementary student,” Keohane said, and are of great value to the broader community.

The budget goes to a vote later this month.

Kevin Ma: Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.