Downturn hits school budgets

While the economic downturn has shrunk student numbers in one Central Alberta school district, it has had the opposite affect on another one. At the same time, operational reserves in Chinook’s Edge, Wild Rose and Wolf Creek rural school divisions have been depleted to the point that they have all been doing some serious number crunching in their 2016-17 budgets.

While the economic downturn has shrunk student numbers in one Central Alberta school district, it has had the opposite affect on another one.

At the same time, operational reserves in Chinook’s Edge, Wild Rose and Wolf Creek rural school divisions have been depleted to the point that they have all been doing some serious number crunching in their 2016-17 budgets.

Wild Rose School Division superintendent Brad Volkman superintendent said that they are forecasting a significant drop of 239 students come the next school year, resulting in between 45 and 50 positions being lost. These would include about 13 teachers plus various support staff.

Communities tied close to the oil and gas sector such as Rocky Mountain House and Drayton Valley have been affected by the downturn, and Volkman believes the expected drop in students can be attributed to people leaving.

At the same time, the district will be unable to use reserves in the 2016-17 school year. This means that a reduction in per student funding as well as not being able to call on their much-reduced reserves anymore will have a total impact of about $3 million less in the upcoming budget.

The district pulled $1.3 million from its reserves this current school year but is no longer able to do that and must have a balanced budget next school year, Volkman said.

Student numbers have been stable the past six years, swinging by about 150 students either way but always hanging in just above the 5,000 mark, he said.

But the next school year is showing the sharp drop-off, resulting in the district dipping below 5,000 students, to an anticipated 4,798.

“We’re seeing in some of our communities, houses up for sale, businesses closing down. … but I’d say the farming rural areas are a little bit more stable.”

A lot of the funding school districts receive is tied to the number of students, including maintenance funding. Yet they still have the same number of facilities to maintain even when student numbers drop, said Volkman.

An added cost in 2017 to the district will be the province’s new carbon tax levy when it kicks in, he said.

While Volkman expects that the district will be able to find jobs for all their tenured teachers, some of their new teachers they won’t be able to keep. The district is currently in the midst of issuing layoff notices.

He said he is confident that class sizes will continue to be reasonable and the quality of programs and services offered will be “just as excellent as they have ever been.”

Over at Chinook’s Edge School Division, superintendent Kurt Sacher is expecting to see an increase of between 75 and 100 students in 2016-17.

And a large part of that increase is being attributed as well to the downturn in the economy.

While the district has seen some students leave as their parents lose their jobs and leave Alberta, some people have decided to return to their home communities and take educational upgrading.

The career high school in Gasoline Alley for example is seeing a significant increase in those adult students who want to go back to school. The net result is a boost in the division’s numbers, Sacher said.

People returning to one of their five career high schools are typically in their early 20s who have been working in the oilfield, their job is no longer there, and they think this is a great time to upgrade and go back to school, Sacher said.

Chinook’s Edge is anticipating stable numbers coming in at about 11,100 students in the new school year. At the same time, Sacher also said that their operational reserves have hit “bare-bones” and they cannot dip into them any longer.

Many aspects of the new budget will remain the same but as a general rule they will be dealing with less resources and expected to serve the same number of needs, Sacher said.

The new carbon tax is expected to cost them between $75,000 to $100,000 next year, he said.

“It’s a constant challenge for us.”

Jayson Lovell, acting superintendent for Wolf Creek Wolf Creek Public Schools, is also projecting an increase of students thanks to growth in communities such as Blackfalds. At the same time though, they are seeing a decline in student numbers in more rural communities including Alix and Bluffton.

The division is projecting an overall increase of at least 68 students next year, although in the current school year they were up 206 students and the year before 129. Wolf Creek has 7,245 students currently.

“We’ve had some pretty nice increases over the last three years,” Lovell said.

The trending they are seeing, certainly in Blackfalds, Lacombe, and Rimbey, is “incredible growth.” There’s no end in sight for student numbers growth in Blackfalds, where there are a lot of young families, he said.

They were caught off guard in Rimbey this school year when 40 more students than expected registered in the elementary school. That may be a reflection of a lot of oil activity in that area, Lovell said.

The district also has seen strong growth in Bentley where they have 37 kindergarten students registered for next year. It could also have something to do with the lower cost of housing, living and taxation in those communities, he said.

While a new Grade 4 to 6 school will open in Blackfalds in September, they project all three Iron Ridge campuses will be close to 100 per cent capacity by 2018.

They are also watching the Lacombe Composite High School closely, because even though it was expanded recently, by 2018 they expect to be at 90 per cent and close to 100 per cent by 2020. Blackfalds Wolf Creek students go to Lacombe for high school, said Lovell.

While the student numbers are holding, this district as well had to draw $2.2 million from dwindling reserves to make ends meet this current school year.

Drawing on reserves isn’t sustainable and faced with a $2.6 million deficit in 2016-17, a balanced budget in the next school year for Wolf Creek means about 40 positions will be gone, although the number of teachers will remain the same.

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