Funding inadequate for Edmonton Public Schools, board chair says

Edmonton Public Schools will have less money next year to help kindergarteners with severe disabilities, according to board chair Trisha Estabrooks.

'Our classrooms will look different as a result of this budget.'

Trisha Estabrooks, Edmonton Public School Board chair, says money allotted for the coming school year is inadequate. (Terry Reith/CBC)

Edmonton Public Schools will have less money next year to help kindergarteners with severe disabilities, the school board chair says.

Trisha Estabrooks said Tuesday the school division received a 40-per-cent cut to program unit funding (PUF) in the province's 2020-21 budget. The program covers extra help for pre-kindergarteners and kindergarteners with disabilities.

However, the province's education minister disputes the size of the reduction. Colin Aitchison, press secretary to Minister Adriana LaGrange, said a different grant will provide funding "at a similar level" for kindergarteners with severe learning delays.

It's too soon to say how much the division will receive, he said.

"Parents can be assured that their kids will receive the service they need to succeed," Aitchison said in an email Tuesday.

Edmonton parent Erin Schaefer is skeptical.

Her four-year-old son, Malcolm, is heading to kindergarten in the fall. His preschool receives PUF funding to help him with a gross motor delay and speech delay.

An occupational therapist, speech therapist and physiotherapist assess and plan how to adapt lessons for Malcolm and prepare him for school, Schaefer said.

An educational assistant works with him one-on-one to help him learn how to hold a pencil and scissors, build up strength and keep him safe on the playground, where his limited depth perception sometimes trips him up. 

She thought PUF funds, and individualized help, would follow Malcolm into kindergarten. That changed last month when the provincial government unveiled a new school funding formula.

As of next fall, schools will receive funding for kindergarteners with severe learning challenges from a K-12 specialized-learning support grant, not PUF. How this affects the amount of funding per kindergarten student is unclear.

"It really terrifies me," Schaefer said Tuesday. "The transition in going from preschool to kindergarten, it's a big one for totally typical kids. But when you have kids who do have additional challenges, as a parent, that's really scary for me."

After hearing from families with similar concerns, she's organizing a letter-writing campaign and started an online petition decrying the change.

She says paring back preventative help for young kids is short-sighted, and could cost many professionals their jobs.

'This budget is not good news'

Changes to PUF were one of several  provincial budget-related concerns that prompted Estabrooks to write a letter to parents and guardians on Monday.

Growing school divisions are financially disadvantaged in the government's new funding formula. Edmonton public expects to grow by about 3,000 students next year.

"This budget is not good news for our students and families," Estabrooks wrote.

The $1.029 billion the provincial government has allotted to Edmonton public for the coming school year is inadequate, she said in an interview.

The minister's office and school division provided different figures for funding to the division for the current school year.

The province says the division's funding is going up by one per cent. The school division says provincial funding is dropping by nearly seven per cent compared to the current school year, and almost nine per cent from where provincial funding stood in 2018-19.

The change will force the division to "reorganize and restructure," Estabrooks said. She wouldn't address the issue of potential job cuts on Tuesday.

"Our classrooms will look different as a result of this budget," she said, adding class sizes will likely rise.

Aitchison said maintaining the total amount spent on K-12 education is an important government commitment, "especially given that Alberta has entered uncharted territory and is facing uncertainty around a global economic downturn."

He advised school boards use provincial funds to prioritize students while seeking operational efficiencies.