Edmonton Public Schools Board grapples with funding shortfall

Enrollment in the city’s public schools is projected to increase by 2.7%, adding just over 2,800 new students compared to September 2021 figures.

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The Edmonton Public Schools Division projects a funding shortfall for nearly 1,700 students in the coming school year, and the school board president blames the UCP government’s new education funding model.

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At Tuesday’s Edmonton Public Schools Board meeting, members discussed plans for the distribution of school funds in the wake of this year’s provincial budget.

Superintendent Darrel Robertson described the situation as “the most difficult budget we have faced in my nine years as superintendent.”

Enrollment in the city’s public schools is projected to increase by 2.7%, adding just over 2,800 new students compared to September 2021 figures.

But Edmonton Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Todd Burnstad said they expect short funding for 1,692 students, the equivalent of a small high school.

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Robertson said the EPSB has been using reserve funds to mitigate the impact of a few years of flat education budgets, but that is not sustainable.

“Obviously we’re running out of room to be able to do that,” he said. “We are experiencing increased pressures everywhere.”

The Alberta government budget for 2022-23 increased funding for K-12 education by 1.7% and committed more than $700 million over the next three years to school supports, a controversial new curriculum, addressing learning gaps and strengthen charter schools.

EPSB President Trisha Estabrooks said that while they saw a “slight” budget increase, it doesn’t cover the strain of rising enrollment.

He directly criticized the United Conservative government’s education finance reform. In 2020, the government implemented a system called the weighted moving average, which counts student enrollment over three years instead of allocating a specific amount of money per student each year.

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The government says the change is intended to provide greater predictability of funding, but the EPSB has warned it could hurt fast-growing school divisions.

Edmonton Public Schools Board President Trisha Estabrooks and Edmonton Public Schools Superintendent Darrel Robertson at a press conference in Edmonton on.  August 16, 2021.
Edmonton Public Schools Board President Trisha Estabrooks and Edmonton Public Schools Superintendent Darrel Robertson at a press conference in Edmonton on. August 16, 2021. Photo by David Bloom /postmedia, archive

Estabrooks said Tuesday that the “difficult” budget facing the EPSB is a direct result of the weighted moving average.

“It’s like I came home to sleep,” he said.

“Now we’re seeing the reality of this new funding formula, and it’s hard to see.”

District G Trustee Saadiq Sumar said the EPSB’s current funding plan calls for the school board to do the best it can with limited resources, but “I think we’re reaching a critical point here.”

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said the EPSB “remains extremely well funded,” with operating funding increased to $10.8 million in the coming school year.

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“For the 2020/21 and 2021/22 school years, all school divisions, including the EPSB, continued to receive anticipated funding despite having significantly fewer students than projected,” the statement said.

“It is also important to note that the EPSB reported $37.5 million in operating reserves and $44.8 million in capital reserves at the end of the 2020/21 school year.”

Estabrooks added that problems with the school finance model are nothing new and that the school board will continue to bring its concerns to LaGrange.

“Since the weighted moving average was introduced, we’ve pushed back saying, ‘Listen, we don’t think this is a fair way to fund a growing division.’ We’re looking at a budget that doesn’t really fund the number of students we have in our division.”

Approximately three-quarters of the school division’s total funds will go directly to supporting students in the classroom. The rest will be allocated to fixed costs such as school maintenance and utilities, expenses that are rising with high inflation this year.

The board will discuss the final details of its budget in late May.

masmith@postmedia.com

Twitter: @meksmith

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