School divisions facing big challenges

Chinook’s Edge School Division has the biggest budget to operate with among Central Alberta school divisions, but it also has a lot of ground to cover and the largest enrolment in the region.

Chinook’s Edge School Division has the biggest budget to operate with among Central Alberta school divisions, but it also has a lot of ground to cover and the largest enrolment in the region.

Thankfully, in a time of education funding cutbacks, it also has a reserve fund it can dip into.

The division is on track to pluck about $1.5 million from those reserves to cover its 2013-14 budget year, a year in which it must make do with about $3 million less than the year before.

Operating expenses exceeded revenues by about $2 million in 2012-13, and the budget projections for the current year portend a similar gap.

But division treasurer Susan Roy said even if those conservative projections materialize, the division is in good shape with over $5 million in reserves.

“We’re right where we want to be. We don’t want to have too much money in reserve, but we also don’t want to have to borrow to meet cash flow,” she said.

“When the (provincial) budget was announced it was challenging but perhaps not as challenging as some other divisions faced.

“We were looking for places to cut to add services in other areas, so we weren’t able to add much in the way of services, but we already knew where we could find efficiencies to make those cuts. That made the process a bit easier.”

What was not easy, however, were the significant cuts to staffing in 2013-14.

Though they have not all been realized, 15.6 FTE (full-time equivalent) positions were planned to be eliminated, and 24 support staff positions were planned to be cut. Roy said many of those positions ended up being filled, though.

The division spends about 78 per cent of its budget on instruction, the highest of the rural Central Alberta boards.

While Red Deer Public School District spends about 82 per cent on instruction and Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools about 80 per cent, the other, more rural divisions spend between 70 and 77 per cent on instruction and more than the more urban boards on transportation.

Wild Rose School Division

Wild Rose School Division plans to spend about 74 per cent of its budget on instruction for 2013-14. The division ran a lower-than-anticipated deficit in 2012-13, but superintendent Brian Celli said “it’s not a pretty picture” going forward.

While the division has a good-sized reserve fund and is budgeting only a $900,000 shortfall for 2013-14, Celli said provincial adjustments to the education funding formula have him worried. He cited transition funding for inclusive education being guaranteed for only one year as something he fears will not be renewed, and mitigation funding the province provided to the division temporarily as Wild Rose cut its spending.

“If we lose both of those we will be a further $1 million short of what we were this year before we even get out of the starting gate.

“There’s only one place we can find a million bucks and that’s staffing.”

The division is already down about 19 teachers from the year before, though the original plan was to cut 23 FTEs. Celli said the division had kept staffing levels artificially high for the last three years, drawing down reserves to pay salaries, knowing the cuts would have to come some day.

“We had a three-year plan for staff reduction; when the budget came out that all got rolled into one year, hence the big number,” he said.

Clearview School Division

Budget pressures have seen staff numbers in Clearview School Division decline as well. By not renewing temporary contracts, the division is employing 7.6 fewer teachers for the school year and while non-certified instructional staffing numbers are up, many maintenance positions were cut.

Though the division saw a small overall growth in enrolment for the year, associate superintendent in charge of business and finance Peter Neale said the primary area of growth ­— Coronation — could absorb extra students without additional staff, while fewer teachers were needed in Stettler, where student numbers have declined.

Neale said government cuts to various grant programs have hampered the division, particularly in its operations and maintenance budget. The division had a deficit just short of $750,000 for 2012-13 and faces a near $1 million shortfall this year.

While the division could draw on its $2.5 million in operating reserves for a year or two more, Neale said reduced service levels in the near future are a real possibility due to the division’s financial situation.

Among school divisions in the region, Clearview spends the lowest percentage of its budget on instruction at around 71 per cent. The expansive division has to spend a greater percentage than most on transportation; a handful of pupils ride the bus for over two-and-a-half hours each day to get to their school.

Wolf Creek School Division budget information is not yet available.

mfish@bprda.wpengine.com

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