Provincial budget fails to address transportation funding shortfall

Central Alberta school jurisdictions were happy for the stable education funding in the provincial budget, but say a zero per cent increase won’t address old and new funding shortfalls.

Central Alberta school jurisdictions were happy for the stable education funding in the provincial budget, but say a zero per cent increase won’t address old and new funding shortfalls.

“We’re grateful for the efforts government has made from a funding point of view. I think they would have faced a lot of pressure to provide cuts to an important area of the budget,” said Kurt Sacher, Chinook’s Edge School Division superintendent, said on Thursday.

But current funding doesn’t allow for potential employee contract settlements, tackle the funding shortfall for students with complex needs, or the lack of funding to bus students, he said.

“I think we understand the difficult economic times government faces. But we’re really still concerned about transportation funding. We come up short in the neighbourhood of $700,000 a year.”

Chinook’s Edge instituted busing fees last year to help deal with costs.

“The board will have to continue to look at ways to make it up. One of those ways is unfortunately fees which they are always hesitant to do, but there’s not a lot of other options available.”

Red Deer Public Schools also put bus fees in place last year. The district faces a $350,000 deficit in transportation funding from the province.

“We’ve been trying to get the government to hear that for a while now, but they just continue to underfund transportation,” said Bev Manning, Red Deer Public School board chair.

She said the district welcomed 64 Syrian refugee students who arrived after Sept. 30 enrolment deadline so the district didn’t get funding for those students for the 2015-16 school year. Students come and go throughout the year so funding may balance out, but the 64 students, who required some extra supports, will probably cost the district $250,000.

She called the provincial budget as fair as could be expected, but it will still make for a challenging year.

“When we work through our budget here right away, it’s going to be pretty tight,” Manning said.

Sacher said he’s waiting for details on how the new carbon tax on fuel for buses and on natural gas and electricity for 43 schools will impact school jurisdictions. The province promised more information at the end of May.

“The impression is that funding levels are sustained so you can provide the same supports. But when there are additional costs, whether it’s the carbon tax or contract settlements that go beyond what’s in the budget, we have to make up for it and we’ve been doing that for the past four years,” Sacher said.

Recently Edmonton Public Schools asked the province to phase out public funding private schools and transfer control of charter schools to public boards.

Manning said Red Deer Public has not formally addressed the issue, but she agreed private schools shouldn’t get taxpayers’ dollars.

“Parents certainly have every right to make that choice. That’s not the issue for us. The issue is that public dollars are going to support those elite systems. We just don’t see it as an equitable situation throughout the province for students,” Manning said.

She said the district has worked hard to bring more choice to parents under the umbrella of public education.

szielinski@bprda.wpengine.com