Parents and trustees hope voters consider deteriorating conditions in Alberta schools

Families say school funding should be a ballot box issue as tight budgets hurt the most vulnerable students.

Alberta's public funding per student the lowest of Canadian provinces

Students, school, Alberta, education, Alberta education, school staff, staffing, disability, inclusion, K-12 education
Wyatt Hoogendoorn, age 8, left, sits with his mother Krystle Hoogendoorn, and his sisters Addy, 6 (second from right), and Paisley, 10 (right) in their home on a farm south of Stony Plain, Alta. Krystle says school staffing levels are so precarious, her children don't always get the help they need in school. Wyatt, who has a genetic mutation causing physical and cognitive challenges, needs one-on-one support from an educational assistant. (Janet French/CBC)

A typical school day for Krystle Hoogendoorn is "chaos," she says.

The stay-at-home parent lives on a farm south of Stony Plain with her husband and three kids, ages six, eight, and 10.

Between ferrying the kids to class on different schedules, volunteering for field trips and activities, chairing the school council and serving on its fundraising committee, Hoogendoorn's life revolves around school.

"K to 12 is our world right now," she said.

It's no surprise that the sustainability of the education system is her top consideration in Alberta's provincial election, set for May 29.

She's watched firsthand as the province's public, Catholic and francophone schools try to stretch their money further.

Provincial government spokespeople say Alberta is spending more money than it ever has on K-12 education, with $8.8 billion allotted in its 2023-24 budget.

Some parents, school trustees and public education advocates will retort that funding increases have failed to keep pace with inflation or Alberta's student population boom.

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Alberta has nearly 36,000 more K-12 students this year than it did in the fall of 2018, which is about a five per cent increase. That growth has also been uneven, with urban and suburban schools ballooning while some rural ones shrink.

At the heart of funding decisions is a formula introduced in 2020 by the United Conservative Party government.

It uses a three-year enrolment average to cushion the blow to shrinking school divisions. But growing divisions say it's punishing them.

"We are asking that that funding model be totally revised," said Kim Armstrong, chair of the St. Albert public school board in an interview. "A one-size-fits-all doesn't work for this province."

Combine it with the escalating costs of utilities, fuel for school buses, and insurance, and the proportion of funding left for classrooms is shrinking.

A Fraser Institute report published in October 2022 found Alberta slid from the third-highest per-student funding of Canadian provinces in 2012-13 to the lowest funding per student in 2019-20.

Educators say it has led to larger class sizes and fewer staff available to grapple with more students who have complex needs.

Teachers report having more students with disabilities, medical conditions, or mental health problems. The province's push to attract immigrants means young families are arriving with children who sometimes aren't fluent in English and need to adjust to the culture.

Brad LaFortune, executive director of Public Interest Alberta, says school employee surveys point to deteriorating conditions.

"We're in a very, very challenging situation in our classrooms and that is obviously going to be impacting the quality of the workplace experience for teachers and educators and of course, the quality of learning experience for students," he said.

In the wake of staff turnover

The availability of education workers can completely change a day for the Hoogendoorns.

Second grader Wyatt Hoogendoorn has a genetic mutation that affects his fine motor skills and cognitive abilities. He can't speak, and uses a whistle in his mouth to help him vocalize.

School, education, Alberta, disability, inclusion
Wyatt Hoogendoorn, age 8, hops between his kitchen and the couch in his home south of Stony Plain, Alberta. Wyatt has a genetic mutation that causes physical and cognitive challenges. He needs an aide to work with him one-on-one at school. If staff call in sick and there is no replacement, he cannot attend. (Janet French/CBC)

If there isn't an educational assistant available to work one-on-one with Wyatt, the eight-year-old can't go to school.

His mom volunteers on field trips, because she knows how much work it can be for the staff to balance students' needs.

Her youngest daughter Addy has a mild speech delay, and needs extra help with reading.

However, aides are often busy dealing with Addy's classmates who have behavioural challenges, Hoogendoorn says.

Paisley, who's in Grade 4, also needed extra help in the younger grades.

"The aides are our world," Hoogendoorn says, dabbing away tears. It takes a lot of trust, she says, to leave a vulnerable child who cannot speak for himself in someone else's care.

The tough working conditions are taking a toll on staff and her children, she says. Support workers aren't staying at the school. Some leave the profession.

Education, Alberta, school, schooling, K-12 education, parenthood, parenting
Krystle Hoogendoorn, left, works with her youngest child Addy, 6, on a money-counting game to help with math skills. The family lives south of Stony Plain, Alberta, and has noticed tight education budgets affecting staffing levels in school. (Janet French/CBC)

The repercussions for the children are substantial. Paisley cries as her mother recounts how an education assistant she had grown close with last year left the school.

When Wyatt's EAs change, he gets out of sorts, his mother says. He darts around like a pinball and calls out, loudly, she says.

"It makes me sad. It makes me worried for what's to come," she says of the staffing problems. "The pay isn't enough. The burnout is real."

Colleen Nash, secretary-treasurer of CUPE Alberta and a school support worker in Edmonton, calls the wages "deplorable." She said employees are sprinting from one student to the next with little chance for lunch or breaks.

"It's a snowball effect, is what's going on," she said. "And it's a catastrophe waiting to happen."

Jorge Illanes, president of CUPE local 3550, which represents more than 2,500 school support staff in Edmonton Public Schools, says long-time workers are so stressed, they're sacrificing retirement bonuses to get out of the field.

And while the UCP government had pledged to fund 1,375 more education support workers this year, Illanes says some EAs are losing contract positions.

With low pay, no summer work and precarious hours, the average education support worker is earning $27,500 a year, he said.

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A minimum-wage earner who works full-time hours in Alberta would earn about $29,000 a year.

He says provincial limits on public sector wage increases could push education workers to the brink.

"Job action is becoming a reality," he said. "Hopefully we don't have to get to the striking. But it is in the conversation."

Parents fundraising for school essentials

Some school boards are also trying to get K-12 education onto voters' radar, in what Edmonton public school board chair Trisha Estabrooks calls a "noisy election."

Schools aren't adequately funded for students who need extra support, the board's advocacy document says.

"It is such a bedrock," Estabrooks says of primary education. "You want a strong economy? You need well educated citizens."

Tight school budgets mean administrators are increasingly turning to parents to pick up the slack.

Education, K-12 education, school councils, Jodi Skerratt
Jodi Skerratt has two children and chairs the fundraising society at their school. She is also president of the Delwood school parent council. (Submitted by Jodi Skerratt)

Jodi Skerratt is president of the Delwood school council and chair of the Edmonton school's fundraising society.

Staff are increasingly asking the society for money for necessary supplies, such as computer equipment and software, books and other library resources, field trips, classroom materials and musical instruments.

The society has to turn down many requests, she said.

"To constantly have to go to the parents and ask them for money, or for those parents to go to other people to ask to support the fundraisers, we know that that can be really hard, and it can be stressful for some parents," Skerratt said.

The parties' promises

Although both major parties have pledged to grow the number of school staff, the details differ.

As of Tuesday, the UCP had not released any platform planks concerning K-12 education. The party's website outlines steps the government has taken during the last four years, including reworking the funding formula, and policy and funding changes to foster the expansion of the charter school system.

The 2023-24 budget pledged to fund 3,000 more school employees during the next three years, including funds for 1,375 more educational assistants and 650 more teachers during the next year.

In an interview, Red Deer-North UCP candidate and Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said this was the first school year Albertans have seen the school funding formula in action, given that COVID-19 caused enrolments to fluctuate.

LaGrange said as of last year, school divisions had more than $460 million in their savings accounts, which tells her schools aren't pressed for cash.

When she met with trustees, they didn't flag operational funding as a priority, she said.

LaGrange also points to promised new funding for dealing with students' complex needs, division-based mental health projects and extra academic help for students who fell behind during the pandemic.

"I heard from many school divisions that they're very, very appreciative of everything that we've put forward because it's been very thoughtful and we're actually addressing real issues rather than throwing money at problems, which we believe the NDP was doing," LaGrange said.

LaGrange said she's also been looking at recruiting educational assistants from the Philippines.

The NDP are promising to hire 4,000 more teachers and 3,000 educational assistants during the next four years, should that party form government.

Sarah Hoffman, the NDP candidate for Edmonton-Glenora and party's education critic, said the goal is to reduce class sizes, and restore the tracking of class sizes eliminated by the UCP.

Hoffman said an NDP government wouldn't look to reduce choices, such as charter and private schools, but refocus investment in the public, Catholic and francophone systems that serve most Alberta students. She said an NDP government would also restore program unit funding, or PUF, to kindergarteners with disabilities.

The NDP has also pledged to pause the rollout of the UCP's controversial new K-6 curriculum.

"Families regularly bring up concerns about class sizes, concerns about lack of supports in schools for their for their children," Hoffman said.


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.