While the overall funding from the province is expected to stay the same for the 2021-2022 school year, St. Paul Education’s board of trustees is making preparations for a leaner budget this year.
According to Board Chair Heather Starosielski, approximately $2.7 million in reserves is available to the board, but they are expecting a decrease of about $1.5 million in funding related to COVID-19 as well as the end of the Innovation in First Nations’ Education Grant (IFNE) the board has been receiving for the past three years.
“That’s the discussion we’re going to have to keep on having here over the next few weeks prior to May 30 when we submit our final budget,” said Starosielski.
She said unless COVID-19 magically disappears before the next school year the board will still need to come up with about a million dollars just to cover the costs of personal protective equipment and expanded cleaning protocols.
“I think our hope is that if those expenses are still there that the federal government continue to support the provinces, and hopefully that support will come back to us. But at this time when we’re building our budget, we’re going to have to make some assumptions in that area for sure,” said Jean Champagne, the Secretary-Treasurer for SPERD.
Starosielski asked how the division is planning for the upcoming school year knowing there is a projected deficit.
According to superintendent Glen Brodziak they’ve asked division schools to look for any savings possible when they are putting together their timetables for next school year.
“Our priority is always to keep our class sizes as small as possible. We continue to be among the lowest in the province. You can find research that says there’s no correlation between class size and student achievement but I have trouble with believing that,” said Brodziak, noting a smaller class means more one on one time between the teachers and students.
Starosielski asked specifically what the division has planned for online learning, noting there are staff designated specifically for it at some schools and larger boards like Edmonton Public have already announced they will continue to make online classes available for the fall.
According to Brodziak, all the divisions online learners still belong to specific schools in order to enable them to transition between online and at home learning throughout the year if desired. He said until they know how many online learners they will have next year, it’s hard to decide it they will continue to run the online classes from each individual school.
“Or division-wide, would we allocate a few of our teachers and just run them through our Myrnam outreach and St. Paul outreach and run a homeschooling program like that,” said Brodziak.
He said because of all the unknowns about COVID-19 and the fall it’s still too soon to ask parents to commit to one thing or the other.
Provincial funding stays the same, costs increase
According to Champagne, the big picture funding from the province of Alberta will see the same amount of money go to St. Paul Education as in previous years.
“We are subject to inflation and the last few years we’ve seen some big changes in insurance and that’s a big question mark as to where it actually takes us,” said Champagne.
He said there would also be less money available for capital projects because of cutbacks to economic stimulus from the province, but because the school board typically only funds projects as they are approved he does not expect those reductions to impact the budget.
One significant impact Champagne is planning for is the carbon tax which will be in effect for the entire year next year and is expected to substantially increase costs to utilities and fuel.
“It’s very difficult for us to reduce our consumption. For example, for buses the increased cost of fuel. Really there’s not a whole lot we can do in the short term especially to improve the fuel economy of our buses,” said Champagne.
While some fees are charged to the families of the 1800 plus students who ride the bus to area schools every day, there have also been increases to other busing related costs including insurance premiums and the rates paid to contractors per kilometre.
SPERD owns and operates approximately 40 per cent of the buses in the division, while the other 60 per cent are owned and operated by independent contractors.
Champagne said costs for heating school facilities with natural gas are expected to increase by about $105,000 next year, but “without additional funding to support energy efficiency upgrades it is difficult for us to adjust to that.”