Edmonton Public Schools eliminating 250 jobs as per-student funding drops

There will be about 250 fewer staff in Edmonton public schools next year as they prepare to welcome more than 2,800 more students.

School division plans to bring back 138 fewer educational assistants next fall

Edmonton Public School Board superintendent Darryl Robertson says the division is planning to bring back fewer staff next year due to budget constraints, and class sizes will go up. (Manuel Carrillos/CBC)

There will be about 250 fewer staff in Edmonton Public Schools next year as the school division prepares to welcome more than 2,800 new students.

Public school board trustees approved a $1.2-billion budget Friday they say will lead to larger class sizes and fewer supports for students with disabilities and additional needs.

Board chair Trisha Estabrooks said it was frustrating to see funding fail to keep pace with growth and expenses at a time when oil revenues are flowing into provincial coffers.

"This provincial government is balancing the budget on the backs of kids in this province at a time we need investment in future generations. And that's what makes it tough," Estabrooks said.

Limited provincial funding and the rising costs of utilities and transportation are driving more money out of classrooms, superintendent Darrel Robertson said.

The division has planned for 138 fewer educational assistants to return to classrooms next year to help students with disabilities.

More than 200 teaching positions will also be eliminated as the school division stops offering parallel online classes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Robertson said during previous years, the division had more wiggle room to hire some of those employees back in the fall once they saw which kids turned up, and where. He said much of that wiggle room is gone now.

Estabrooks said the cash crunch is the result of three years of a new provincial funding formula that punishes growing urban school divisions.

Even with $57 million extra "bridge" funding to help narrow the gap, the division calculates there are more than 1,600 full-time students that are unfunded in Edmonton public, which is the province's second-largest school division.

Robertson said funding is not keeping up with the growth in enrolment. Students will get the help they need, but staff will be spread thinner, he said, and the trend is not sustainable.

"It will become an impossibility to operate and to care for the needs of the kids," he said.

Trustees were despondent about the state of funding. Trustee Marcia Hole's voice broke as she described how "heartbreaking" it is that constrained spending especially affects children with mental health challenges and disabilities.

Although the provincial government has promised $110 million for mental health and additional help to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, Robertson said Edmonton public's portion will come nowhere close to meeting students' needs.

Keltie Marshall, centre, has seven children enrolled in Edmonton Public Schools, five of who need additional help. She's surrounded by kids (clockwise from top left) Elijah Gaunt, 17, Duncan Gaunt, 16, Maleah Gaunt, 16, Judah Marshall, 7, Bennett Marshall, 9. (Submitted by Keltie Marshall)

News of the planned cuts to staffing is frustrating to Keltie Marshall, co-founder of the group Hold My Hand Alberta, which advocates for children with disabilities. Five of her nine children need extra help in school.

A growing number of students competing for a limited number of education assistants, speech language pathologists, occupational therapists and other school-based professionals is making classrooms increasingly unsafe for some kids, she said.

Now that the provincial government is offering homeschooling families access to some professionals, it's encouraging more parents to pull their disabled children from classrooms — and that's not right, Marshall said.

The proposed cuts are "defeating" and will lead to a stressful summer for some parents left wondering if their kids will have the help and supervision they need next fall, she said.

"One less EA is too many," Marshall said. "We're already at situation critical. We cannot lose one more support for our children."

In an email, Katherine Stavropoulos, press secretary to Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, said the division is "extremely well funded." She said the division received more funding than the formula had allowed for during the past two years, and has some cash in reserves.

The school division is planning to use $10 million of its savings next year, leaving about $15 million in reserves.

The budget does not account for provincially pledged money for implementing a new curriculum and buying resources, new mental health money, or the potential cost of new contracts for teachers and other staff.

Earlier this week, the Edmonton Catholic school board approved a $528-million budget that will add 10 new teaching positions. Officials said they received flat funding and are expecting enrolment growth of less than one per cent. That board is drawing nearly $6 million from reserves to cover increasing staffing costs.


Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.