Alberta school boards told to apply to use maintenance dollars to cover staffing

Alberta's education minister has informed the province's school boards that they can apply for one-time access to funding earmarked for maintenance to support classroom and school-based staffing costs. 

This decision comes less than a month after the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) cut 300 temporary teacher contracts after its provincial funding was reduced by $32 million.

When CBE announced these cuts, the education minister said she was ordering an independent financial audit and governance review of the CBE, accusing the public school board of "reckless" misspending.

In the interim, her solution is to allow access to maintenance funding.

"We will allow approved boards to repurpose the operating portion of the Infrastructure Maintenance and Renewal grant to support classroom or school-based staffing costs," said Colin Aitchison, press secretary for the minister, in an emailed statement. 

'Seems like an admission'

But Sarah Hoffman, education critic for the Official Opposition, said the move speaks volumes. 

"It seems like an admission that the government has absolutely brought in a budget that's resulting in significant staff reductions," she said.

"I haven't heard from any boards that are happy with this budget. Many have talked about cuts in excess of Calgary public, for example, over $30 million in cuts, and we know that that's resulting in at least 300 teachers receiving layoff notices."

The Legislative Assembly of Alberta

Aitchison said that with 61 school boards in the province, they're unable to predict how many will look at accessing this option. 

"Three boards made official requests," he said. "Which have been approved."

When asked which school boards, Aitchison did not say. 

In board meeting agenda documents, however, the CBE said it had submitted a request to access $15 million in IMR grant funding. 

"To moderate the impact of the fall update plan on classroom and school based staffing," it read.

Risks of using maintenance funding

But they acknowledge there are risks to using this money for staffing. 

"However, prioritizing teaching and learning in the classroom is of highest priority," reads the document.

In order to be eligible, Aitchison said the boards must first demonstrate a reasonable use of the operating reserves and ensure that critical student health and safety infrastructure needs are maintained.

"This is a one-year opportunity to provide boards with greater short-term flexibility as we transition to a new funding and assurance model for the next school year," he said. 

Hoffman said it's forcing schools to make a choice between staff and safety. 

"They're absolutely trying to ask school boards to choose, you know, staff or buildings, and the truth is that you need both," she said.

Hoffman said that from her view, what the government should be doing is amending its budget to return funds to all boards.

"Instead, what they're doing is cutting and saying, 'well maybe you can take some money away from maintaining your buildings and spend it on some staff.' That's not ultimately a long-term solution," she said.

Eligibility of boards

Board chairs of public, separate, Francophone and charter school authorities were informed of this decision by Education Minister Adriana LaGrange in an email dated last Wednesday. 

In the email, she stated that since the 2019 budget was tabled in the legislature, she'd spoken to many school board officials in the province about their concerns. 

"I realize the challenges a fall budget presents for your school jurisdictions as we adjust to our current fiscal reality," it reads. 

LaGrange said that boards wishing to seek approval to access this IMR funding will be expected to answer the following questions related to the current school year: 

  • How much of your reserves did you access?
  • What other cost of revenue adjustment are you implementing?
  • How much IMR funding do you wish to repurpose?

Hoffman said that prior to the NDP forming government in 2015, they saw reports of schools that had major infrastructure problems, including buckets of water in halls or classrooms because of leaking roofs.

"We made an intentional effort, especially during the economic downturn when there were tradespeople available to work, to invest in them and make sure that our schools were safe places for kids to learn and work," she said. "And seems to me that that isn't a priority for this current government."

The Ministry of Education told CBC News that boards have to make the request this year, but said LaGrange has committed to providing a decision to school boards within three business days of their request.  

Change in documentation

When looking at Alberta Education's projected operational funding break down for school boards last year and this year, the way the funds appear on the document has also changed. 

Scott Neufeld/CBC

As an example, in the CBE document for the 2018-2019 school year (as of March 2018), the IMR funding — $34,678,000 — is totally separate from the "total funding" accessible by school boards for operational costs. 

In the CBE document for the 2019-2020 school year (as of October 2019) the IMR funding — $37,483,000 — has been added as a line item within the regular operating budget. 

The ministry told CBC News that 45 per cent of a board's IMR will be available to be repurposed.

In the case of the CBE, that would be approximately $16,867,350.

In the case of the Calgary Catholic School District, 44 per cent of its IMR is $7,095,600.

Hoffman said if the CBE does choose to access these funds, it's still less than half of what was cut from its budget. And to make matters more complicated, the majority of school boards already have millions in deferred maintenance, she said. 

"I will tell you, from my experience being a chair of a metro school board, the deferred maintenance is significant. We have schools that still have asbestos in them, that have boiler systems that are verging on 100 years old," she said.

"You need to be strategic and you need to make sure that you're investing in those schools before they get worse."

The CBE said it would not make a statement on this until Tuesday's public board meeting, when an updated budget assumptions report, including the IMR grant funding, will be presented to the board.

"The updated report will provide further details relating to administrative staffing changes in service units, other budget balancing strategies, impacts on schools and school-based staffing, as well as transportation fees, rebates and service level implications," reads the CBE document.

In an emailed statement, the Calgary Catholic board said it would have more details following an upcoming board meeting.

"Calgary Catholic School District is currently exploring the impact of the provincial government's decision to allow school divisions to repurpose the operating portion of the IMR grant," reads the statement.