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Rural school boards in tough

opinion editorial stock

As you may have read by now, the provincial budget was slightly worse than what the Pembina Hills School Division expected: not only was there no new funding for cash-strapped school divisions, what sources of funding that were in place got slashed.

One of these cuts was expected — Pembina Hills had fully anticipated to lose the money once provided under the classroom improvement fund (CIF), a one-time grant that equaled $843,606 and was used to address special-needs students. That money was only the result of bargaining talks between the province and teachers.

What Pembina Hills didn’t expect — and what’s so incredibly astonishing — was that the province decided to eliminate the school fee reduction grant of $405,651, along with $1.6 million via the class size initiative program.

The school fee reduction grant was provided in lieu of allowing divisions the ability to charge school fees, which the NDP government restricted two years ago. That only made sense: if divisions can’t charge those fees, then the revenue must come from somewhere.

But now the government’s cut off the funding, apparently expecting divisions to shoulder the cost of eliminating school fees. That is simply unfair.

And then there’s the class size grant. It’s a well-known fact that the class size initiative had been extremely flawed — rural boards like Pembina Hills were largely able to meet the targets without even trying.

But school divisions still need the money that came with that initiative. It needed to be fixed, not tossed to the curb.

Of course, the province did soften the blow with a one-time transitional grant of $2 million, but the operative phrase there is “one-time.” A provincial funding shortfall of around $800K this year is going to be $2.8 million next year if that one-time funding isn’t replaced.

That absolutely cannot be funded out of the division's reserves as they have been bled dry and there’s just not enough money left to weather another year like this one.

Of course, not all of Pembina Hills woes are the fault of the provincial government. After all, their insurance premiums have apparently exploded as a result of the now-yearly fires and floods that ravage Alberta each year.

But here’s the thing: the UCP promised in this last election that they would review the current funding formula to ensure that rural schools would have adequate resources in light of declining enrolment.

Well, Pembina Hills funding has decreased as a result of declining enrolment, but so far, the province has only seen fit to chop some of the funding streams that the division was depending on.

Fortunately, the province has stated they will look at developing a new K-12 assurance and funding framework in the coming year. That’s good news if they keep their promises and actually fund rural boards in a way that matches their unique reality.

But if that funding framework just imposes more cuts, then the future of public education in rural divisions is bleak.