School division looks to budget, election

·5 min read

Golden Hill School Division (GHSD) held a board meeting on Feb. 23, focusing on a range of topics, including setting next year’s budget, this year’s election, enrolment trends and changes to its transportation program.

Budget development

The government of Alberta released its 2021 budget on Feb. 25, which will shape GHSD’s budget next year. According to the province, funding for kindergarten to Grade 12 is being maintained, despite lower-than-expected enrolment. However, GHSD will review the specifics of the budget in developing its own budget for next year, through a multistep process.

At this time of year, the board is focused on its overarching budgeting principles, explained superintendent Bevan Daverne.

“One of those principles is that we live within our means and make (GHSD’s budget) work within the funding we receive,” he said. While GHSD may access reserve funding for its budget, it is not permitted to run an overall deficit.

Another principle is ensuring GHSD’s priorities continue to align with its overall education plan.

“We’ll continue to focus on those things that matter most for learning,” said Daverne.

Once the budget is released, the province’s minister of education calls all the division chairs across Alberta to communicate the highlights of the budget, explained Laurie Huntley, GHSD board chair. The board will later receive the budget in its entirety for review.

“That’s when the rubber hits the road and our people start crunching the numbers and comparing things from last year to this year,” she said.

The board will review the specifics of the provincial budget and its impact during the next meeting in March, added Daverne.

Election 2021

This year, a provincial school board of trustee election will be held on Oct. 18.

Trustees are responsible for setting school division goals and priorities, developing a budget and policies, ensuring communication with residents, advocating for the division and evaluating the superintendent. GHSD has six trustees, each representing a different ward.

One of the changes to this year’s election was the nomination period, which started on Jan. 1, earlier than previous years. During the Feb. 23 meeting, the board passed an updated bylaw outlining the identification requirements of nominees.

The current trustees on the board have been “outstanding,” said Daverne. “They think about what’s best for students as a whole, they are very good listeners and they are very considerate in the decisions they make.”

Advocacy is a key part of trustee’s work, including advocating for changes to funding, regulations and rules with provincial decisions makers, he added.

Huntley (Ward 5, Carseland and Wheatland Crossing), Rob Pirie (Ward 4, Strathmore) and Jennifer Mertz (Ward 4, Strathmore) are all seeking reelection.

Enrolment changes

During the Feb. 23 meeting, GHSD’s headcount was shown to have increased from December 2020 to January 2021 by 135 students. This trend was driven by increases in its online learning programs, including 127 added to its Golden Hills Learning Academy and 26 to its NorthStar Academy.

The jump was due to the pandemic, said Huntley. “We think you can sum up the reason in five letters: C-O-V-I-D,” she said.

But this increase is not due to children in the division moving from learning at school to learning at home, she explained. Instead, these programs are offered to students throughout Alberta, so the increases are due to students from other jurisdictions entering the program. From the start of last year, these programs have doubled in size, noted Daverne.

To meet this new demand, GHSD has had to make some quick adjustments, such as hiring more teachers.

But within the division, the opposite trend is being seen, where students are moving back into schools from at-home learning. “Our families have been really happy to be able to get back to face-to-face classroom learning,” said Daverne.

Transportation monitoring report

GHSD’s yearly transportation monitoring report was also discussed during the Feb. 23 meeting, focusing on GHSD’s school bus program.

A new operating training program has been implemented, called mandatory entry-level training (MELT), established in March 2019 as a provincial requirement for large vehicle operators. The training requires set hourly training requirements for drivers (53.5 hours total), including increased requirements for classroom, in-yard and on-road training.

Existing GHSD policies already required 62 hours of training, with some of the training performed over a year. But the change with MELT is the training is required up front. This is not necessarily an improvement, because drivers require regular supervision, ride alongs and support to develop, said Daverne. “We’re going to help you continue becoming a better driver, and we’re going to continue to supervise over time,” he said.

GHSD is also pursuing several initiatives for its transportation program, including ongoing efforts to implement online attendance tracking systems, new cleaning protocols and adding live cameras to the buses.

“We’re looking at ways to monitor students’ attendance on a bus automatically – where they get on and where they get off,” he said.

Each of GHSD’s buses has GPS tracking, which will be considered in a review of the department’s inclement weather policy. The buses also each have WiFi for students, providing a filtered internet from which they can access their Google Classroom.

“School bus transportation is very different today than it once was,” said Daverne.

Sean Feagan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Strathmore Times