Over the last few weeks, there have been a number of conversations on social media about Alberta Education funding, Horizon School Division’s draft budget, and about our belief in the inherent value of our employees. Much of the conversation is founded on erroneous information (e.g. high needs students are coded, and that coding means that there is funding allocated for assistants to work with that child - This is not the case), (e.g. The division is cutting supports for high needs students. This is not the case, in fact there will be more assistants allocated to support high needs students in 2018-2019 than in 2017-2018). We know that in the absence of information, people have a tendency to rely on speculation and rumour. We are always striving to be transparent and open to feedback
As the Board prepares to finalize its budget for 2018-2019, we continue to seek feedback from our stakeholders about the Board’s budgetary priorities and strive to communicate how expenditures align with the Board’s priorities and three year plan. For example, on April 25th, 2018 we held a council of school council meeting in which the chair, or alternate, of each school council was invited to attend. One of the key topics of the meeting was to share what the 2018-2019 jurisdiction budget would look like. Parents representing their school council were asked what their budgetary priorities were for the upcoming year and detailed financial information was shared. The complete powerpoint was shared with all school council chairs as part of the minutes and we asked that the information be shared at their local school council meetings.
Within Alberta, school authorities are required to develop a three year plan with core goals, key action items, strategies, outcomes, and measures. School authorities are then evaluated by Alberta Education, students, parents, and staff with regard to their overall success (e.g. provincial achievement tests, diploma examinations, accountability pillar surveys). Horizon repeatedly places in the top 5% of the province’s 63 school authorities. Ten of Horizon's 15 provincial measures are above the provincial average and we are awarded the highest score possible by Alberta Education. Given that Alberta’s education system is ranked as one of the best in the world, and Horizon is one of the best in Alberta, it goes without saying that we have great schools. Such a ranking does not come about by accident. It comes about through a lot of hard work by dedicated leaders, teachers and support staff. Individuals that go above and beyond their job descriptions on a daily basis for the benefit of our students.
As a school authority, our priorities are simple. Our core goal is to develop contributing global citizens. Students who are not only good at school, but good at life. Students, who give back and make our communities a better place. To achieve this core goal, we have two key action items: 1) strong instruction, and 2) intervention. Strong instruction is about ensuring we have the best possible teachers in front of our children and then supporting them to become even better. This means ongoing professional learning about best practice. Intervention means that when students are not successful, we provide adequate supports. This could be differentiating expectations (e.g products, processes, and/or content) and providing additional supports such as assistants.
As we engage in conversations with parents and other stakeholders about finances and read posts on social media there appear to be a number of erroneous comments that appear time and time again. Comments such as the following are inaccurate and I’ll try to address each below:
- The division is not allocating funds towards students, they are top heavy and there are more and more people employed at division office
- The government funds students based on codes and once a student is coded there is specific funding for that student (and this funding is for a one-on-one assistant
- The division is laying off all their assistants and high needs students are not being supported
- The division has huge reserves
- Assistants are not valued
As most Albertan’s know, the province has been in an economic downturn for several years. We have all heard about how the oil and gas industry downsized and laid off people by the 1000s. Public services such as education have been far less impacted given the NDP’s $10 billion deficit budget. This is not to say that people are not laid off. As per collective agreement requirements, temporary staff are laid off each June. Many of these individuals are rehired in the fall once student enrollments are confirmed.
Why were we so well positioned in the past and why are we now needing to make cuts?
During the last three or four years, education has seen no funding rate increases. Costs, however, continue to increase (e.g. collective agreements contain salary grids for teachers and support staff and each year, salaries gird increases cost the division $250,000).
Three to six years ago, AB ED removed a large number of grants. For Horizon this was a loss of $1.75 million per year. This is a loss of about $10 million dollars in the last six years.
Compound this with the loss of $1.2 million per year due to Horizon’s student enrollment decline and increases in fuel costs for our buses which travel $1.3 million km per year, the carbon tax, and other utility increases and one can quickly see that we have millions less to spend.
Horizon has always believed in supporting its schools. Division office's expenditures have always been and continue to be below the expenditure limit imposed by Alberta Education. Even after the government lowered the amount of money the Board can spend within division office by 10%. When one compares Horizon's division office staff contingent to other school authorities in southern Alberta one will notice that we have on average 10 to 20 less people doing the same work. In some jurisdictions there are six or seven secretaries, Horizon has two. Most school divisions have five or six computer technicians. Horizon has two. All school authorities have two accounts payable, Horizon has one. Some have seven learning coaches, Horizon will have one next year. For 2018-2019, the Board is diverting $250,000 from Board and System admin to schools. Rather than fully utilizing these funds at the division office, they are used to provide staff in schools.
The Board’s commitment to schools and school based staffing is clearly evident when one looks at their budget over the years. During the last four years, the Board has utilizing $7.5 million worth of reserves to fix up schools and enhance staffing in schools. In 2017-2018 there was close to $1 million worth of staffing coming from reserves. Horizon which once had reserves around 25% of its annual operating budget now has reserves below 5%. Operating reserves are essential for ensuring there are adequate funds to be able to make monthly payroll ($2.7 million/month) on those months where provincial revenue deposits do not align with payroll timelines.
While the Board is no longer in a position to be able to utilize reserves, we remain committed to prioritizing dollars to ensure there are superb people working with Horizon’s students. We know that when we spend dollars in classrooms, kids do better. We know that when we have dedicated staff in our small schools, that our rural communities are better off, that our kids are better off.
That is why more than $250,000 of Board and system administration funds continue to be transferred to schools. Horizon is one of only five (5) school divisions in the province whose average class size is below the recommendation of the province. Each year we spent $2 million dollars more on teachers than is required to meet class size recommendations. This equates to 22 additional teachers that are placed in schools because we know the value they bring to students. These teachers lower class sizes, enhance breadth of programming and minimize multi-grading. Ninety-five percent of school authorities do not even meet provincial class size recommendations and we exceed it by 22 teachers.
The trustees know the impact assistants make in the lives of students, especially for those who are learning English, struggling or those who have complex needs. We know the importance of relationships and the impact our assistants have on our kids. That is why the Board did not reduce centralized assistant allocations for 2018-2019. That is correct, there is no reduction in centralized support staff. The assistants that work with our highest needs students. In fact, there are 2 more full time equivalent assistants being allocated in 2018-2019 as compared to 2017-2018.
This may be an appropriate time to set the record straight about coding and what was once called “special education funding”. Under the old system, which has not been used by Alberta Education for some ten years, students required extensive assessment and diagnosis to qualify for funding. If all requirements could not be met there was no funding, and the system was heavily audited. Since 2009, Alberta Education has shifted to an inclusive education model. School divisions are provided a lump sum of money and they are expected to meet the needs of students with diverse and complex needs. While coding is still used to some extent to assist in diagnosing need, there is no linkage to funding or assistant time. Supports such as assistants are not intended to remain with students throughout their schooling. The goal is early intervention and development of strategies that develop independence... think "give a man a fish and you feed him
for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime".
Each year, division office staff work with school principals to review student enrollment and student needs. Teachers and assistant hours are then allocated to schools centrally. Horizon typically allocates about $500,000 more in assistant hours than Alberta Education funds. This equates to 18 full time assistants more than what could be funded by inclusive learning revenue received from Alberta Education. We provide these additional assistants because we are committed to directing supports towards students, ensuring student needs are met, and because we value the work our assistants do.
Once teachers and high needs student assistants are allocated, the remaining instructional dollars are provided to school decentralized budgets for the day-to-day operation of schools. Given the additional 22 teachers (above and beyond those required for class size) and 18 assistants (above and beyond those provided to schools via inclusive learning funding, and the fact that board reserves are no longer available to top up decentralized budgets, schools will have less money for day-to-day operations and for adding additional generalized staffing. There are some concerns from principals that the day to day operational funds may not be adequate to continue to do what has historically been done at the school level, and that schools will need to prioritize spending. School principals continue to have autonomy over these funds. Some principals use them to provide general assistants, while others do not. School principals will need to make difficult decisions regarding their decentralized budgets and how to expend them.
One could argue that the jurisdiction has a history of over-allocating funds to schools as the vast majority did not fully expend all their funding each year. We would argue that in most cases this was because principals were saving for larger expenditures. Historically when schools did not fully utilize all funds provided by the Board they were allowed to direct such funds into school reserves so that they could be used in future years. The Board has reduced the need for such savings by centrally covering the cost of things that schools were historically responsible for. At the start of the 2018-2019 school year, Horizon’s schools had access to more than $1.6 million in reserves. The Board remains committed to school autonomy with regard to these reserves and while the Board may not be able to provide additional funding, the reserves they have provided to schools will provide about $500,000 to enhance services beyond provincial funding next year.
Marie Logan, Board Chair
Dr. Wilco Tymensen, Superintendent of Schools