A parent in the Sturgeon School Division is raising questions about how grants that follow indigenous students are being spent by the school board.

John Coffin has two children with Cree heritage in the division north of Edmonton, but he doesn't believe the extra money the school board receives for them is being spent in the right spirit.

"Right now the money is simply given to the independent schools to do as they want and they can use that money for floor wax or door knobs," said Coffin.

School boards receive an extra $1,178.10 from the province for each student whose parent checks a box identifying them as First Nations, Metis or Inuit.

In a statement provided to CBC News, the Notley government said it believes the "locally-elected boards are in the best position to determine the needs and priorities of their students."

Coffin disagrees and wrote to the board and the minister of education to make his point.

"The money should be spent on cultural initiatives," Coffin said. "This money needs to go back into First Nations, Metis and Inuit programming.

"I'm outraged and very upset about this."

A spokesperson for Minister David Eggen has confirmed he has received the letter and said Coffin will be getting a response soon.

'Absolutely legitimate question'

The Sturgeon school board, which runs 16 schools, said it will be reviewing its policies in regards to the grants.

"It's an absolutely legitimate question," said Sandra Brenneis, director of learning support for the division, which has about 5,000 students enrolled in schools throughout Sturgeon County and the towns of Bon Accord, Gibbons and Redwater.

About 430 students in the division identify themselves as indigenous this school year, adding about $500,000 to the board's budget.

Brenneis said that in the past the division hired an indigenous liaison worker as well as success coaches with the money, but said those measures created issues as well.

"It made our FNMI (First Nations, Metis and Inuit) kids feel ostracized rather than more connected," Brenneis said.

The division's goal is always to create an inclusive environment and not one where some students feel segregated, she said.

That's why the board allowed schools in the district to introduce measures they thought would be more effective, she said.

'Hard pressed to say we're doing any better'

The division focuses on counselling for all students, Brenneis said.

"Our kids who identify as FNMI, we have some counsellors who connect more closely with them and track their achievements and particularly if there are any risk factors," she said.

Brenneis acknowledges only two counsellors in the division are indigenous, but said there are other things happening in the district, where aboriginal students already meet or outperform provincial standards.

Brenneis said a few of the schools do partner with aboriginal elders who are available to students. She said library resources are also being improved.

Still she acknowledges it's difficult to say whether the board's most recent policies have made the kind of difference it was hoping for.

"In the past we have tried different approaches and it didn't seem like it was having the impact and so we tried a different approach now and again," she said. "I would be hard pressed to say that we're doing any better."

Cultural vacuum

Coffin would like to see access to elders in every school in the district as well as cultural liaison officers whose job it would be to connect with indigenous students.

"There's a cultural vacuum in Sturgeon School Division," he said.

Brenneis said the board will be working hard in the next few months to figure out how to do better as it draws up its next three-year plan.

That will take effect when the next school year starts in September.

"We're trying to determine how we can do this in a better way so it's certainly on our radar so that we can track and actually see if the things that we're doing are making a discernible difference, so it is a legitimate question," Brenneis said.

Coffin said he's encouraged to hear that, but will be making sure the issue isn't forgotten.

"I'm a dog with a bone in his mouth and I've got to keep going," he said.

@cbcgareth

gareth.hampshire@cbc.ca