Edmonton Public Schools cuts 178 teachers in budget crunch

Larger class sizes, burned out teachers and less help for students with disabilities are likely repercussions of a flat-lined budget as enrolment grows at Edmonton Public Schools.

Teachers, educational assistants among permanent layoffs as $1.2B budget approved

Board chair Trisha Estabrooks said trustees and administrators had a difficult time setting the budget for 2020-21 in "tight financial times." (Dave Bajer/CBC)

Larger class sizes, burned out teachers and less help for students with disabilities are likely repercussions of a flatlined budget as enrolment grows at Edmonton Public Schools, critics say.

On Wednesday, while Alberta's education minister insisted funding is rising for all Alberta school divisions, the Opposition accused the United Conservative Party government of dispensing misleading spin.

As politicians quibbled over budget lines, Edmonton Public Teachers local president Heather Quinn said city classrooms will look different next year, pandemic or not.

"I hope parents have a full grasp on just how different that will look," she said on Wednesday. "It means some of our most challenged students with special needs and exceptionalities, our new Canadians and English language learners, it's those students that will not have early interventions and supports that they need."

As it prepares to take in about 2,400 more students next fall — roughly as many students as a large high school — Edmonton Public Schools will cut 178 full-time teachers next year. That's about three per cent of its teaching staff.

The division will also shed about a quarter of its educational assistants compared to last September. About 434 support staff positions are being eliminated, most of who are workers who sit side-by-side helping students with disabilities and challenges.

In a Tuesday school board meeting, superintendent Darrel Robertson said the decision to let so many education assistants go is "heartbreaking." But with fewer dollars, school principals had to make difficult choices, he said.

"These are talented folks who are committed to the success of our kids," he said.

Board chair Trisha Estabrooks said Tuesday that "hard conversations" lie ahead — between administrators, between trustees, and "with our community and parents, to talk about 'OK, we really are in tight financial times here ...what's our priority here when it comes to educating more than 107,000 students?' "

Less money, more kids

In the legislature on Wednesday, and later in a news conference, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange answered questions about the cuts by pointing to provincial education funding commitments.

As a new education funding formula takes effect next September, all school boards will see their government funding grow, she said. Edmonton public's government grants will rise by $14 million, she said.

Alberta's Education Minister Adriana LaGrange says government funding to all school divisions is going up in 2020-21 as compared to the previous school year. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

She said school boards across the province were consulted in the creation of that new funding formula.

"I want to reassure all Albertans that we continue to have the best, one of the best-funded education systems in all of Canada," LaGrange said in the legislature. "We are continuing to fund education to the highest level in Alberta and that will continue."

But Edmonton Public Schools' budget documents show government funding has dropped by nearly $4.4 million dollars compared to two years ago — when it had about 5,900 fewer students enrolled.

School division spokesperson Megan Normandeau said in a Wednesday email the job cuts were necessary to play catch up after the board went into the previous school year with no provincial budget information to work from.

After the UCP government took power from the NDP in 2019, it eliminated three key education grants that kept class sizes smaller, helped improve staffing ratios and reduced school fees parents pay.

Minister says boards have flexibility in spending

Quinn said the new funding formula is exacerbating the problem, because it penalizes districts that are growing faster.

While Edmonton public expects 107,140 students to enrol next fall, it will be funded as if it had 104,936 students, according to division data.

Heather Quinn is president of Edmonton Public Teachers local 37. She says a reduction in the number of teachers and educational assistants next year will have a substantial effect on students' education. (Submitted by the Alberta Teachers' Association)

Quinn said parents should be appalled at what the government has done to education funding and should contact their MLAs.

"This funding model is broken," she said. "It doesn't work, and they need to show some integrity, own up to it, and fix it."

LaGrange said school boards have "maximum flexibility" to decide how much of their funding ends up in classrooms.

NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said the government has broken promises to maintain education funding in schools and fund enrolment growth.

She said government messaging that funding is rising is disingenuous.

"We can see the evidence with more kids and more needs and no new money, there will be less staff," Hoffman said. "The government can keep using the same messaging that they choose, but it doesn't make it true."

She said larger class sizes will be particularly risky, should students return to school buildings in September.

Students have been out of schools and learning at home since mid-March, after public health orders took effect to prevent the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.

In its last budget, the government signalled it intended to keep provincial education funding flat for the next three years while Alberta schools are expected to grow by about 15,000 students a year. Ministers have said they expect school boards to find savings and efficiencies.