Hundreds of city teachers lost to budget cuts

EDMONTON - After a day in which 326 Edmonton teaching positions were likely lost, school boards say they desperately need consistent funding.

Both Edmonton school boards passed versions of their budgets Tuesday that include severe cuts. Now, boards across Alberta say they need five years of sustained funding to escape the roller-coaster of finances that stunts long-term planning.

"It's critically important that the government provide predictable and sustained funding," said public board chair Dave Colburn. "We absolutely have to find a new funding model."

Debbie Engel, chair of the Catholic board, agreed with Colburn that five years of predictable funding would be ideal. "With three years, we could do a good job of planning for the future, but could do a better job with five."

Jacquie Hansen, president of the Alberta School Boards Association, said schools are at the mercy of oil prices and a boom-and-bust economy. The last few years of recession have been particularly bad. New programs fail because funding is pulled after the first year.

Hansen said a five-year plan, similar to funding for Alberta Health Services, would make education "more than a line item in the budget."

Tuesday night, the public board passed a budget that Colburn called "heartbreaking."

Within the $851 million budget, 345 full-time jobs will be cut, including 229 teaching positions.

The budget will use $21.5 million in reserve funding, which leaves no surplus for the public board by the time the next school year ends.

In 2009, the board's surplus fund, used for any unpredictable expenses in a school year, was $52 million. Now it's gone.

"The trend over the past three years has been disturbing," Colburn said. "It raises serious questions about the adequacy of funding from the province."

The budget signals a loss of nearly any flexibility as principals become teachers and lose time for professional development.

All 62 school boards in Alberta are reporting a net loss this year, Hansen said.

Earlier Tuesday, the Edmonton Catholic board passed a draft budget that will cost it 97 teaching positions in the next school year, as well as 63 support staff and 24 custodial positions.

Currently, the Catholic district has 1,848 full-time teaching positions. The public district has roughly 4,000.

Earlier this year, the province increased the overall education budget, but only enough to cover the promised 4.5-per-cent wage increase for teachers. It cut back many of its other programs, particularly the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement and English Language Learning program.

That led to a $9.6-million shortfall for the Catholic board. Its draft budget reflects a $1.8-million operating deficit, which leaves the district with a surplus of $2.4 million, half of what the surplus was three years ago.

Both boards have said class sizes will be affected because they have a growing number of students and fewer teachers.

Education Minister Dave Hancock said the potential number of teachers cut was higher than he expected, but he was "not overly" concerned.

Hancock said changes in class sizes will likely not affect education.

While Colburn agrees there are differing views on how class sizes affect education, he said the number of students per teacher is always a priority concern for parents.

The Catholic board's draft budget, which is scheduled for an approval vote on June 28, is $353 million.

Decisions about which schools will lose teachers won't be made until enrolment numbers are known in the fall.

The Alberta Federation of Labour and other groups held a town-hall meeting in Calgary Wednesday night to address public sector cuts, especially cuts to education. A similar meeting will be held in Edmonton on June 23.

Edmonton Journal, Wed Jun 15 2011
Byline: Ryan Cormier

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