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Catholic school board expects to drain reserves

A shortage of provincial dollars has the board of Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools looking at emptying its reserves to pay for the upcoming school year. Trustees voted Monday night in favour of using up all the division's reserves, which total $1.

A shortage of provincial dollars has the board of Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools looking at emptying its reserves to pay for the upcoming school year.

Trustees voted Monday night in favour of using up all the division's reserves, which total $1.4 million. While the board deferred passing an official budget until the end of November, trustees passed a motion confirming their intention to use the reserves without exceeding the balance.

"We're emptying the piggy bank this time around, which is very, very concerning," said board chair Dave Caron.

The decision means the division won't cut teaching staff this year, except when warranted by falling enrolment. This had Caron feeling good about the division's ability to deliver high-quality education in the upcoming year.

"After that I'm very fearful, so the government in my view has to step up to the plate," he said.

Other trustees also said that using up the reserves leaves the division vulnerable.

"It is a little scary being so close to the line," said trustee Jacquie Hansen.

School boards across the province are feeling the pinch because this year's provincial budget didn't include money to cover a teacher salary increase of 2.92 per cent that will take effect Sept. 30. Boards are upset because they feel the province is reneging on a five-year deal with the Alberta Teachers' Association that linked teacher salaries to the Alberta Weekly Earnings Index in 2007.

The St. Albert Catholic board is also upset that a change in class size funding resulted in a loss of $1.7 million, which it feels is among the greatest losses experienced by any board in the province.

In an attempt to deal with the funding crunch, Catholic division staff identified about $500,000 worth of efficiencies, said superintendent David Keohane.

School boards normally have to submit budgets for the upcoming school year by the end of May. But this year, challenging fiscal times have prompted Education Minister Dave Hancock to allow a June 30 deadline for boards that anticipate running deficits in excess of their reserves and Nov. 30 for those that have enough reserves to cover the upcoming school year.

Hancock has been asking school boards to run deficit budgets as "bridge financing" for the government rather that trim teaching staff. Boards are pressuring the minister to come up with extra funding. Some across the province are announcing layoffs as well as deficits.

Hancock will be discussing with trustee groups over the coming weeks how to address the funding situation, said Alberta Education spokesperson Kathy Telfer.

Sturgeon board has reserves

The Sturgeon School Division will take advantage of the Nov. 30 extension, said superintendent MichÈle Dick.

The division is expecting to post a $300,000 deficit in the current school year and $800,000 next year. If both estimates hold true, the division's reserves would sink to about $2 million, she said.

Last week the Protestant board passed a budget with a projected deficit of $1.8 million in the coming school year, which will leave it with about $319,000 in reserves.