Big cuts coming to classes

Central Alberta’s largest school division is warning of significant cuts to the classroom in 2015 without additional provincial funding.

Central Alberta’s largest school division is warning of significant cuts to the classroom in 2015 without additional provincial funding.

Chinook’s Edge School Division, which educates nearly 11,000 students in Sylvan Lake, Olds, Innisfail and other communities, has drawn down its reserves for years to fund operations, and projects to do so again for the 2014/15 school term to the tune of nearly $1 million. But, superintendent Kurt Sacher warns, it will not have that luxury going forward.

“What we’ve been experiencing the past few years is more and more kind of skin deep cuts. If that trend continues it’ll be a bone deep cut the following year for us where it starts to really impact,” said Sacher.

Among those skin deep cuts are teacher subtractions — 13.6 positions this school year and a further seven projected for next year. While treasurer Susan Roy said conservative budgeting means a lot of those planned cuts should be recovered, with student enrolment trending upwards any cuts make for a precarious situation.

The division’s 2014/15 budget projects nearly $121 million in revenues against expenses of $123.6 million, with most of the difference due to amortization.

The province did not provide much new education funding in its spring budget after axing major grant programs the year before. Overall, the division has less money to work with for next year than it did in 2011/12.

The biggest cut for the large rural division was a fuel subsidy that would have meant over $500,000 annually. Without it, the board is having to consider charging fees for rural bus riders and has put off replacing its oldest buses.

“We’ve upped ride times to the point where we just can’t put some of those little kids on buses any longer than they’re already being asked to ride,” said Sacher.

The division wants to maintain its operational reserves fund at approximately three per cent of total revenues, a mark it projects to reach in 2015. Schools boards across the province generally have been relying on their reserves in recent years to balance budgets, after having built up the funds over time.

At the end of the 2013 fiscal year, Alberta’s 61 school boards had over $385 million in operating reserves, according to an Alberta School Boards Association report.

Wild Rose School Division boasts a slightly healthier reserve position, but plans to run a $2.1-million deficit in 2014/15. The division did most of its cutting last year, reducing its teaching staff by 20, but may have to deal with less funding next school year if declining enrolment projections hold.

As superintendent Brian Celli puts it, he can “see the bottom of the barrel.”

“Probably next year we’re going to have to start making some program decisions. Hopefully we don’t get to that, because a lot of the places that we would make those decisions tend to be in the support areas, because it takes a fair amount of money to support a small amount of students,” said Celli.

The Rocky Mountain House-based division intends to hire 10 additional education assistant and family wellness workers for September, while keeping teacher levels steady.

Wolf Creek School Division — covering schools in Blackfalds, Lacombe and Ponoka — is anticipating a near-$1 million deficit for 2014/15. The division has benefited from strong enrolment growth along the Hwy 2 corridor, allowing it to post recent surpluses.

The division intends to maintain its teacher numbers for next year, while adding 14 positions for inclusive education programming. Wolf Creek plans to spend $86 million for the school year, with over $5 million in its operating reserves at the end of 2014/15.

Clearview School Division passed a budget earlier this month that features a $661,000 deficit. The division encompassing Stettler, Erskine, Donalda and other communities in East Central Alberta expects to cut the equivalent of seven teaching positions.