Calgary

CBE begins budget deliberations as it faces funding shortfall, unknown impacts of COVID-19

The Calgary Board of Education began deliberations of its $1.37-billion budget on Tuesday, a budget that includes cost-cutting measures to make up a funding gap and relies on the assumption that there will be no continuing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the upcoming school year.

But the education minister's press secretary says the financial woes are the board 'crying wolf'

The Calgary Board of Education began deliberations of its 2020-21 budget on Tuesday. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

The Calgary Board of Education began deliberations of its $1.37-billion budget on Tuesday, a budget that includes cost-cutting measures to make up a funding gap and relies on the assumption that there will be no continuing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the upcoming school year.

"The 2020-21 school year will be a year marked with change, challenge and opportunity. School systems, including the CBE, will be operating in a world heavily impacted and influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic," the preliminary budget document reads.

The report reads that, at the time of writing, COVID-19 restrictions are in place, but the budget does not anticipate for any impacts of the pandemic on the upcoming school year. It states that the CBE maintains modest operating reserves to address moderate unanticipated costs but if larger costs arise it will require discussions with the province. 

Schools have been closed since mid-March and no firm date has been set for the buildings to reopen.

The province has said it will provide $20.6 million more in funding than the previous year, but the CBE said, as it is expecting 3,000 new students and will open three new schools, it is facing an anticipated $62-million shortfall.

The budget states that the CBE relied on one-time funding sources to make up last year's shortfall and no longer has those options.

It also details how per-student funding has decreased as enrolment has increased over the past decade, with 104,182 students enrolled in 2011, up to an expected 128,885 in 2020. In that time, per-student funding has dropped from $8,766 to $8,478.

"There's definitely difficult decisions being made, and difficult discussions being had. We continue to drive dollars to the classroom as much as possible," board trustee chair Marilyn Dennis said.

One of those difficult decisions came last week, when the CBE announced its bus fee hikes for the 2020-21 school year, which will see some families paying hundreds of dollars more.

Parents will have to pay $800 per year for students who live between 1.6 and 2.4 kilometres from school or who attend alternative programs, $465 for students who live further than 2.4 km away from their designated community school and students in specialized programs who can use general transportation, and $400 for half-day and alternating day kindergarten students.

Parents of students in specialized programs who require specialized transportation will not pay a fee.

Other belt-tightening options and ways to align with the province's new funding framework discussed during Tuesday's board meeting included increasing class sizes, charging families a school supplies fee, moving some administration staff into teaching roles, and closing the locations of some specialized programs.

Colin Aitchison, press secretary for the education minister, tweeted that the CBE is crying wolf with its budget concerns.

"The CBE consistently cries wolf over their funding, claiming significant shortfalls and ending with surpluses. It happened while the NDP formed government too. In 2018, they claimed a $35-million shortfall and blamed the government of the day," he wrote.

"This is straight out of their playbook. Claim they aren't receiving enough money, blame government, then post surpluses. There is a systemic inability prioritize long-term financial decision-making by this board."

The budget need to be finalized and sent to the provinceby May 31.

With files from Andrew Brown

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