Edmonton Public Schools facing 'tough' budget with enrolment, inflation outpacing funding

Edmonton Public Schools is facing tough choices in its upcoming budget deliberations with a spike in enrolment numbers that the school division says is outpacing provincial funding. 

Education Minister says school division is getting more funding than last year

Edmonton Public School Board Chair Trisha Estabrooks, seen here in a file photo, said the province's funding formula is having a negative effect on the school division's budget. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

Edmonton Public Schools is facing tough choices in its upcoming budget deliberations with a spike in enrolment numbers that the school division says is outpacing provincial funding. 

"We are experiencing increased pressures all over," said district superintendent Darrel Robertson at Tuesday's meeting of the board of trustees "This is the most difficult budget that we will have faced in my nine years as superintendent." 

Edmonton Public School is forecasting an enrolment increase of 2.7 per cent for the upcoming school year but money from the province isn't keeping up. 

The district estimates that 1,692 full-time students will be left without funding due to Alberta Education's weighted moving average formula (WMA).

Trustees discussed the allocations, which will form the basis for next month's budget deliberations, at their meeting on Tuesday. 

"This is a tough budget," said Trisha Estabrooks, chair of the district's board of trustees. "This will be a tight budget for Edmonton Public Schools."

The weighted moving average formula has been controversial since Education Minister Adriana LaGrange introduced it in February 2020.  The formula is calculated using enrolment figures from the previous, current and upcoming school years.

Critics say the formula benefits rural schools with declining enrolments and hurts the large metro school boards with a growing number of students. 

Edmonton Public Schools projected to have student enrolment of 102,702 full-time equivalents (FTE) in the upcoming school year. Its funding allocation is based on 101,010 FTE as calculated by the WMA formula. 

The district is looking at an operating revenue budget of $1.226 billion for 2022-23 with $10.1 million from the reserve fund supplementing the allocation from the province. 

LaGrange insisted on Tuesday that the district was getting more funding compared to the previous year. 

"Every student is funded, it's just on the weighted moving average," she said.  "I do know overall that their $1.2 billion budget is increasing."

Estabrooks agreed the budget has increased overall but the WMA formula leaves the district with nearly 1,700 unfunded students, a figure a board official said was the equivalent of a small high school. 

"The reality is for a growing school division to not truly be funded for the actual number of students we have is problematic," she said. 

'Something has to give'

A particular concern for the division is the dropping amount of its reserve fund, which it has relied on to soften the impact of frozen funding in previous year. 

The district is facing higher operating costs due to inflation for fixed costs like utilities, insurance and school maintenance. The result is that 74 per cent of funding is going into the classroom, a lower amount than in previous years. 

The district will receive an increase in bridge funding given to help transition to the new funding framework — $57.4 million compared to $50.5 million in the previous year. 

During the meeting, Estabrooks asked how the division is planning for the eventual elimination of bridge funding, which represents about five per cent of the budget. 

Robertson said the government is going to make decisions going forward about sustaining the public education system. 

"Something has to give," he said. "We are experiencing significant cost pressures and you can see it in our dwindling reserves."

With files from Janet French