New Alberta legislation would limit school board control over reserve funds

The Fiscal Measures and Taxation Act, tabled in the legislature Tuesday, seeks to amend five pieces of legislation that would change the rules for how school boards spend their reserve funds and how teachers bargaining agreements are reached.

If bill passes, school boards would need permission to spend from reserves

Finance Minister Travis Toews, left, delivers the budget last week in the Alberta legislature as Premier Jason Kenney looks on. (Jason Franson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Alberta school boards and charter schools may soon need the government's permission to spend money in their savings accounts.

The government also plans to cap how much school boards can save in reserves, starting in September 2022, the finance minister said Tuesday.

"Everything is designed to ensure that maximum resources get into classrooms and that we're ensuring that Alberta children receive the best education possible," Finance Minister Travis Toews told reporters.

But the chairperson of Edmonton's public school board said the move is an overreach by government.

"At Edmonton public, it's not as if we're rich in reserves to begin with — far from it," Trisha Estabrooks said. "I would say that this adds a layer of bureaucracy and absolutely erodes school board autonomy."

Toews tabled a bill in the legislature Tuesday that would also apply a four-per-cent tourism levy to short-term rentals such as AirBnb, as announced in last week's provincial budget.

Bill 5, the Fiscal Measures and Taxation Act, would amend five pieces of legislation to allow the government to act upon changes proposed in the 2020-21 budget.

Among them is a new requirement for Alberta's 26 post-secondary institutions to ink three-year agreements with the government that tie some of their public funding to performance.

Beginning April 1, 15 per cent of university and college budgets would be tied to performance measures. Though post-secondary institutions are still negotiating their new goals with the government, they could be required to hit targets such as enrolment counts or graduate employment rates.

Teacher bargaining changes proposed

If passed, the bill would also tweak how the government and school boards bargain with Alberta teachers. A rejigged Teachers' Employer Bargaining Association (TEBA) board would have 15 representatives, eight from government and seven from school boards, negotiate a provincial collective agreement with the Alberta Teachers' Association. Right now, there are only six school board representatives in the group.

The bill also proposes giving the 15-member, government-dominated TEBA board the final say on agreements with teachers, rather than another group of 61 school board representatives.

The teachers' collective agreement expires Aug. 31, 2020. Bargaining is expected to begin next month. Toews repeated on Tuesday the government has no money for increased public sector wages.

The government also wants to give TEBA the power to charge school boards fees for their work, such as handling grievances from the teachers' association.

As the United Conservative Party government changes K-12 education funding, school boards are increasingly dipping into savings to cover expenses. Alberta schools are growing by an estimated 15,000 students each year, but a new education funding model includes a lag in full funding for new students.

Boards are expected to pull $681 million from their reserves to balance their budgets in 2020-21.

The money boards and charter schools hold in rainy day funds has come under scrutiny from both the provincial government and school employees, who say boards should spend excess surpluses on services for students.

At the end of the last school year, Alberta's school boards had a combined $364 million socked away.

Estabrooks said school trustees need the flexibility to spend their money in the best interests of students.

Toews said he doesn't think asking the minister's permission to dip into savings erodes elected school trustees' autonomy.

"I believe this will result in improved co-ordination and it will help ensure that resources get into classrooms and result in better outcomes for Alberta students."