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Edmonton public schools calls 2024 budget 'tragic' amid funding shortfalls

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The Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) said kids will face even larger class sizes as the district struggles to keep up with rising enrollment and inflationary pressures.

At a special board meeting Friday, EPSB discussed concerns over its 2024-25 budget, which trustees called "tragic" and "disheartening."

"We have over 4,000 students that will not be funded," said trustee Dawn Hancock. "And we're coming up to a billion dollars in deferred maintenance – that's not a pretty story."

To cover what it says are funding shortfalls, the new budget includes accessing more than $22 million from the division's capital reserves and operating surplus.

That surplus, EPSB said, is expected to drop to 1.5 per cent next year – just a half-a-point above the mandated minimum.

"It's getting tighter and tighter," EPSB superintendent Darrel Robertson said. "This budget reflects an investment of almost $16.5 million of our accumulated surplus … It's not sustainable."

"We really do need a solution to a funding formula into the future because we are running out of surplus to sort of smooth over the bumps."

While the current weighted funding model is tied to enrollment, the board said education grants have not increased accordingly, meaning money meant for instruction is being pulled away to address administrative and maintenance costs.

"There is obviously a 4.4 per cent increase, (but) it doesn't keep up with our enrollment growth," trustee Marcia Hole said. "It feels like a cut to me."

"Appearances can be deceiving," said trustee Julie Kusiek. "It appears like we're getting a budget increase, but we're not.

"It appears like we're hiring more staff, but in proportion to the number of students, not really."

Minister of Education Demetrios Nicolaides said Alberta's education system is "world class." 

He said the weighted moving funding model protects school boards which might see declining enrolment, while the Supplemental Enrolment Growth Grant provides extra money for fast-growing districts like Edmonton Public.

"I’m always open to talking with our school boards and (making) improvements as necessary," Nicolaides said in a statement Friday. "This is why we changed the Supplemental Enrolment Growth Grant in November."

"We did receive some benefit from that, although not nearly enough," Kusiek said. "We are here and ready to try and make something work better, because our kids need it." 

 'Not great news for families'

The board said funding shortfalls can be seen in larger class sizes, fewer programming choices for families and less money for students with complex needs.

The most recent data from Statistics Canada, from the 2020-21 school year, shows Alberta spent the least amount of money per student in Canada.

"We went from being one of the top-funded provinces in the country to the least-funded province in the country, and it shows," Hole said.

In February 2024, the Alberta Teachers' Association (ATA) estimated the province would have to boost funding by 13 per cent just to bring Alberta in line with the national average.

Over the past five years, the division has added more than 17,000 students – pushing schools to 90 per cent utilization. That utilization is expected to hit 100 per cent in the next few years.

The ATA reported in January that the average number of students in EPSB classrooms already exceeded recommended averages across all grades, with the greatest disparity seen in Grades 7 to 9.

The Elder Dr. Francis Whiskeyjack School, located in the Meadows area, will open in September 2024 for Grade 10 and 11. 

With a capacity of 2,400 students, the school's Grade 10 and 11 regular programs are full. The Grade 10 advanced placement program is full as well, and the school does not have the program for Grade 11.

Students who move to the area will be accepted. 

The Elder Dr. Francis Whiskeyjack School will not open for Grade 12 students until 2025-26.

Seven Edmonton public schools are currently using a lottery process and Robertson said two more are expected to join that list next year.

"(It's) not great news for families," Robertson said. "But it's the most transparent, fair process given the constraints that we have to accommodate that growth."

Nicolaides said Alberta's population grew by 200,000 people last year and there are currently 19 new school projects underway in Alberta.

The 2024 provincial budget includes money for 13 Edmonton school projects. Of those,six were public schools. Glenridding Heights, a Grade 7 to 12 school, was the only public school out of five schools to receive construction funding this year. Construction is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2025.

When complete, the schools will have space for 2,410 students.

The EPSB board of trustees all expressed concerns with the budget, but it was approved. It will be submitted to the Government of Alberta by May 31. 

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