Categories: Local News

Do more with less, schools told

St. Albert Public schools could face a 2.5 per cent cut to its spending this year due to the provincial budget and projected growth trends, says the board’s superintendent.

The province tabled its 2015 budget this week, and education was one of the necks on the chopping block.

Although school boards will receive $145 million more this year to pay teachers and teach students under the proposed budget, growth pressures mean they actually need $200 million more.

Boards will have to save about $78 million, or about three per cent, without cutting teaching staff or wages, meaning the savings will fall on non-teaching staff such as administrators and teachers’ aides. The budget predicts that about 244 full-time positions for non-teaching staff will be cut province-wide as a result.

School boards have been asked to cut their non-classroom teaching costs by about 2.7 per cent, said St. Albert Public board superintendent Barry Wowk. He wasn’t sure if this would mean job losses, as it would depend on what the board could cover with its surpluses.

More troubling is the budget’s announcement that it won’t fund any increases in enrolment this fall, he added.

“Any students you get higher than you had this year, you’re not receiving any funding for,” Wowk said.

The province predicts that about 12,000 more students will enrol in Alberta schools this year, but the budget does not provide any extra cash or teachers for these students. That means class sizes will likely go up by about 1.5 students overall this fall.

This wouldn’t be a problem if St. Albert stopped growing, but the board saw a five per cent jump in enrolment last year, Wowk said. If that happens again this year, it’ll be equivalent to a 2.5 per cent across-the-board cut.

“We’re going to have to figure out how we handle that.”

Supports slashed

Education is about more than just teachers, said St. Albert Catholic board superintendent David Keohane. A typical classroom today might have a teacher’s aide to help students with developmental challenges, tech support for the smartboard, a janitor for cleanup and a principal for administration.

Take a teacher’s aide out of a class and the education of the whole class suffers, said Ellen Snaith, head of the St. Albert Public Teachers Local No. 73.

“Once again, education is being asked to do more with less.”

The budget affirms that there is cash in the province’s five-year capital plan to complete all the new schools, modulars and modernizations announced in the last few years, including the three new St. Albert and Morinville schools announced last fall.

But Carryl Bennett-Brown of the Greater St. Albert Catholic Teachers’ Local 23 questioned where boards would get teachers for those schools given the freeze on new teaching positions.

“If they’re holding the line on instructional costs … I have no idea how they’re going to be able to put bodies into schools.”

Boards usually get schools when they’re overcrowded and can shuffle students and teachers over to new schools to relieve that, Wowk said. But those schools also need new support staff, and boards won’t get more money for them.

“It becomes extremely difficult if our numbers grow without the extra funding.”

About $89 million of the $145 million bump in the education budget is for the last year of the Teachers’ Framework Agreement – a province-wide four-year wage deal with Alberta’s teachers under which they saw zero per cent raises for three years and two per cent this year.

Future wage talks with the province will likely be difficult given the premier’s recent remarks on public sector wages, Snaith said.

Wowk said the public board would debate the budget’s impacts at its April 8 meeting, but won’t have its growth projections for the fall ready before May.

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.