Alberta school divisions find workarounds to dodge or delay layoffs

School divisions across Alberta are juggling their budgets to try to avoid, delay or reduce worker layoffs in response to a provincial budget cut.

Schools trying to avoid 20,000 support worker job cuts

Alberta school support staff are still working, even as classes are shut down by the coronavirus pandemic, Alberta school leaders say. (Remo Casilli/Reuters)

School divisions across Alberta are juggling their budgets to try to avoid, delay or reduce worker layoffs in response to a provincial budget cut.

In the wake of news the government would slash $128 million from school board budgets for April, May and June, school division leaders say they'd rather cut other costs than lose educational assistants, custodians, secretaries and maintenance workers.

It's an early sign schools may dodge cutting all of the 20,000 support worker jobs labour groups initially feared. The layoffs are supposed to be temporary until classes resume.

Despite instructions from the province to issue layoff notices, Wild Rose School Division will keep its 200 educational assistants (EAs) employed until the end of the school year, school board chair Russ Hickman said Thursday.

Unemployment is high and spirits are low in Drayton Valley and Rocky Mountain House, where the board operates schools, he said.

"It's a little sign of hope that things can get better and that education would not be something that their children would lose if we could help it," Hickman said.

He said EAs are an important part of keeping in touch with and educating children at home since the province cancelled all K-12 classes on March 15. The move is part of the provincial public health effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Eliminating the need for substitute teachers and travel for meetings, dipping a little bit into reserves and stepping away from school bus contracts allowed the division to trim $1.2 million in spending.

Savings come from travel costs, school supplies

The superintendent of southern Alberta's Prairie Rose school division announced Wednesday in an online video leaders would lay off 35 EAs instead of all 128.

Medicine Hat Catholic Schools' superintendent Dwayne Zaricny also said Wednesday the division will absorb a 14 per cent cut without dismissing staff.

Their public counterpart, Medicine Hat Public, made some quick deals with the union to keep all 400 support staff employed, superintendent Mark Davidson said on Thursday.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange says schools will bring back all laid off support workers when Alberta K-12 classes resume. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Facilities workers cut utilities costs by unplugging almost all appliances in schools and reprogramming thermostats. The division pulled some money back from schools that would be used for paper and pens.

Workers agreed to pick up tasks beyond their usual duties, Davidson said.

Red Deer Public Schools will keep 250 EAs employed a month longer than anticipated, postponing layoffs until June 1.

Superintendent Stu Henry said he was "broken hearted" when Education Minister Adriana LaGrange initially announced the budget cut last Saturday.

EAs are connecting daily with families and students — some are even tracking down students with outdated contact information, he said.

Delaying the layoffs isn't perfect, but it is a relief, he said.

Boards have more flexibility than initially thought

Although an initial letter to school boards said divisions should issue layoff notices so workers could collect employment insurance, several division leaders said they later learned they could have more choice in how to cut costs.

LaGrange and Premier Jason Kenney have said school superintendents and trustees asked if they should lay off staff. None of the leaders who spoke to CBC on Thursday said they had relayed that message to the minister.

As information trickles out of each school board, it could be another week before most workers know how far the layoffs will extend, said Lou Arab, communications representative for the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

The union represents around 10,000 school support workers across the province. It is heartening to see some boards find ways to keep some workers, he said.

However, since the government reneged on a March 15 promise to give divisions full funding for the school year, Arab is suspicious of more changes to come.

Custodians, maintenance and clerical staff are particularly vulnerable to layoffs, because they're not involved in instruction, he said.

"I want to celebrate the work that trustees in places like Medicine Hat are doing to value their school supports," he said. "But I don't want to give anybody the impression that cutting education funding is something that can result in there being no pain — because there's pain everywhere."