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Budget, COVID, literacy and numeracy

Last night’s board meeting agenda was full of very important reports and decisions for the Board of Trustees.

Distribution of Funds

The board spent almost three hours debating next year’s Distribution of Funds, the beginning of our budget process. I believe that the Distribution of Funds is the most important report coming before the board for two reasons. First, it outlines for the public what our revenue is for the coming school year (95% of this revenue comes from the government of Alberta). Second, it is the decision-point for the board on how that revenue will be allocated to schools and central departments.

The government of Alberta has continued with a frozen education budget of $8.2 Billion dollars, province-wide. This remains problematic for a province with growing numbers of students in K-12 because it means less dollars per student on average. Edmonton Public continues to be impacted by these funding decisions, even though we saw a decline in our student numbers due to the pandemic. While many grants to school boards have shifted, the high-level news is that we will be recieving similar funding to previous years and we will likely have more students next year.

That leaves our board to decide how to best allocate the funds we do have. I had been very public in stating that my vote for this year’s Distribution of Funds would hinge on whether there was money allocated to students in Kindergarten who would have previously qualified under PUF. Last year, the province eliminated all PUF grants to Kindergarten (and much of the grants to Pre-K). If the province of Alberta did not provide this funding, I was expecting our board to direct targeted funding for supports in Kindergarten.

With their recent budget, the provincial government did target funding back to Kindergarten for students with severe and moderate needs for specialized supports. The bad news is that this funding was taken from our overall Specialized Learning Supports grant, and our Operations and Maintenance grant. While I was hoping for additional money to replace these funds, I was pleased to see that our students in Kindergarten will be receiving targeted allocations in this Distribution of Funds. I was also pleased to see that there will be more funding weighted to K-3 students. In previous years, this also occurred due to the provincial grant for small class sizes for K-3. I believe the weighting is important and fits with our Board’s Strategic Plan goals of supports for early learning.

At our board meeting, our board was presented with a new model for how funding is weighted to schools to support students who need specialized supports. I was pleased that our administration included the formula for weighting this funding and I raised concerns about the criteria used to arrive at the weightings. For instance, it is not clear if the amount provided per student for a student with profound needs provides the funding required for one-to-one supports. Our board heard that a principal committee provided feedback on these weightings and believe that they allow for the flexibility for principals to make decisions based on individual student needs, yet I believe it is important for future boards to ask whether these weightings are best suited for those decisions. While our board did not have time to request further information or engagement on this question, I believe that this will be critical for future allocation discussions coming before the Board of Trustees. I believe that staff, student and family engagement on these weightings will be an important first step in determining if the weightings allow our school leaders the ability to provide the supports needed in their schools without feeling that they are pulling funding from other areas.

COVID

The board also heard an update on the impact of COVID and learned that the numbers of cases in our schools are continuing to increase with the number of cases in the community. Superintendent Robertson shared that the necessary measures for self-isolation have once again begun to impact staffing levels, with increasing difficulty to fill openings. This may impact the division’s availability to operate if cases continue to rise and the Superintendent shared that it may require the provincial government to think about a return to online classes for older grades.

Literacy and Numeracy

The board also debated a motion to create an action plan to improve literacy and numeracy skills in Edmonton Public Schools. I put this motion forward in response to a recent report before the board showing lagging achievement overall and an achievement gap in literacy and numeracy for students from high social vulnerability schools, students who have been identified as needing specialized supports and students who self-identify as First Nations, Metis and Inuit. The motion put forward the need to address systemic barriers to learning, and to use evidence-based practice to ensure that effective strategies are used to improve literacy and numeracy for students. While this work is currently happening and has the support of all working at EPSB, I believe that a division-wide plan can allow for more collaborative and effective change for students. I am happy to say that it passed with unanimous support from the board and look forward to updates on the action plan.

To watch this action-packed meeting, see below: