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A New School Year

Tomorrow is the day after labour day.  It feels very different than normal this year.  We’ve already had the “first day,” we’ve tried on the new sets of rules and procedures.  It doesn’t feel the same, and it might be hitting home that “the new normal” really doesn’t feel normal at all.

I wanted to make the space to say again, that if things don’t feel normal yet, it’s because they aren’t normal yet.  We’re all still working on figuring out how to return to school in the middle of a global pandemic.  And it’s a little bit of a bumpy ride.

What I can say with absolute certainty is that the staff at EPSB are continuously amazing me with their dedication and care.  I’m astonished that EPSB has been able to roll out a distance learning option for almost 30% of our students. I know that there have been some delays but I’m amazed at the amount of hard work put in to making this system work for families.  I’m also witnessing the work of teachers and school staff who have been figuring out a brand new way of doing things in person, a way to help keep students safe and help them feel safe too.

All of it involves worry and excitement and a whole lot of other emotions, probably more than there are even words for. The one filling my heart right now is gratitude. I’m so grateful as a parent and a Trustee for the staff at EPSB.

The Board of Trustees has also been working hard to advocate for the needs of our students and staff. In early August we highlighted the needs of our large, growing school division and advocated for the dedicated funding needed to reduce class sizes and increase physical distancing.  We continue to communicate our needs and advocate for this funding.  I’m thrilled that we’ll be receiving an additional $37 Million in funding from the federal government some time this month.  While this will not be enough to provide smaller class sizes for all classes in our division, we will put it to good use.  We’ve also written to Dr. Hinshaw with concerns about physical distancing, and requested a meeting to gain clarity on response times and protocols when cases of COVID are identified.

The work of our board continues with our first meeting tomorrow, where we are discussing a motion for school renaming and a report on the School Resource Officer Program.

As always, I would love to hear from you about your experiences of school re-opening, your needs, and your thoughts on the issues coming before our board.  I’d be happy to join you at a school council or community league meeting, or chat on the phone.  Please reach out to me any time!

I’m wishing you a warm welcome back.  While it may not feel normal just yet, I’m hoping you can feel the hard work, dedication and care of our community of students, staff and families.

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Impact of Provincial Budget Changes, PUF, Transportation Fees

The Edmonton Public School Board of Trustees is continuing to meet by Zoom during the pandemic, and we had a very full meeting last week. At our most recent Board Meeting on April 28,2020, Trustees discussed requested reports on the response of  our school division to the shift to on-line learning and the impact of class cancellations. We also discussed details of changes to the way school boards are funded in Alberta, cuts to Program Unit Funding, and debated changes to our transportation fees for next year.

Weighted Moving Average

The Government of Alberta has changed the way school boards will be funded starting next year.  In previous years, school boards received a specific amount of funding per student enrolled in the school division.  Now, boards will be funded on a formula that creates a “weighted moving average” of enrolment for the past three years. Now, half of a board’s funding will be tied to current enrolment, while the other half is based upon enrolment from the previous two years.

This funding formula is helpful and provides stability to school boards with declining enrolment.  It means that these boards have some time to make decisions on how to best support students with decreasing funding.  However, this formula has severe consequences for growing boards like Edmonton Public.  Our board has grown by several thousand students over the past several years.  This new funding change means that we will no longer receive full-funding for any students over and above our enrolment from previous years.

Although our 2020-2021 enrolment is estimated to be approximately 106,828, the weighted moving average is 105,135.  This is significant underfunding for our growing school board. Our board has proposed a solution to the weighted moving average, and we would like to see growing boards receive funding for their actual current years’ enrolment, as decreases to our funding have a direct impact on staffing and supports to students.

Cuts to PUF

Our board also received a report outlining the provincial cuts to Program Unit Funding (PUF).  This funding supports students with disabilities who need specialized supports in Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten programs, to receive wraparound supports from specialists including Occupational Therapists and Speech-Language Pathologists. The Government of Alberta’s cuts to this funding has meant that the funding we received was reduced by 76%, from $39.5 Million to $9 Million.  The loss of this funding is significant and will mean that Edmonton Public Schools has to reduce the number of children enrolled in our Pre-Kindergarten programming from 1,040 to approximately 600.  Our administration has made the difficult decision to close 22 of our satellite program sites in schools, and reduce the number of Pre-Kindergarten hub sites from 10 to 6.  This means that programming that was available at 32 of our schools, will now only be accessible at 6 schools.

I am very concerned about the impact of this provincial decision. We know that early intervention has a significant impact on the learning trajectories of students. In our board meeting we heard that approximately 27% of students who receive early support will no longer require additional supports as they enter school. The loss of this funding will impact families and it will mean a net loss for school boards who will now be racing to provide intervention to children when they enter kindergarten, without the dedicated funding that PUF provided. If only looking at the financial consequences of this decision, it is one that will cost our system significantly, as the return on investment for early intervention is great.  However, we know that the loss of this program is more than just numbers in a spreadsheet, it will impact students and families directly. I am hoping that this decision will be reversed, and our board will be exploring further advocacy efforts.

Changes to Transportation Fees

Our board also passed a new fee schedule for transportation fees.  After losing $5.3 Million in transportation funding with this years’ budget, we sent a survey to families, which informed our board vote on a change to fees going forward.  The new fee structure will be based solely on the type of transportation offered, with a $38 monthly fee for students riding the yellow bus, and a $60 monthly fee for students riding ETS.  During disdussion of this change, we heard that this will be a net increase for most of our families, as anticipated due to a reduction to our transportation grant. The changes will also mean a simpler set of rules for families.

An important factor for me in making this decision was a concern for the 16% of our families living in poverty.  In our meeting, we were assured that any family who is unable to afford transportation fees may request a reduction or waiver by speaking to their principal, and we discussed ways to make this process more transparent to families.  In addition, families may apply for the Ride Transit Program, which offers a reduced rate of $38 on ETS bus passes based on family income.

 

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EPSB Response to Covid-19

At our most recent board meeting, Trustees heard about the impact of and response to the pandemic on students, staff and families, with an additional report highlighting responses to nutrition and food security. We know our staff, students and families continue to face obstacles, stress and uncertainty in accessing learning at home during this time, including the loss of many of our valued staff.  I appreciated hearing about the hard work of those within Edmonton Public Schools who are working hard to try to bring learning to students in their homes.

Highlights included:

  • Creative ways of connecting with students and families (including sing-alongs, virtual assemblies, and phone calls home)
  • Loaning out over 13,000 Chromebooks to students
  • Working with partners for the provision of low-cost or cost-covered internet for families without access.
  • Educational Assistants working with teachers and students to support inclusive learning
  • Specialized supports for students when possible, including take-home packages, sign language supports, supports for First Nations, Metis and Inuit students, and supporting families where English is a second language.
  • Co-ordinating food hampers and grocery store gift cards for families who are food insecure.

Edmonton Public Schools also brought many online resources together, including the Resource Hub and resources for parents in:

 

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Board updates

Quite a lot has happened since my last blog post.  Since that time, Edmonton Public Schools has been tasked with the work of most educational systems in the world, as we collectively face the novel coronavirus pandemic together.  I’m incredibly proud of the work of EPSB staff who, after finding out that classes were cancelled, began working immediately throughout the night to notify students and families and to plan for the weeks ahead.  As our school division has begun to deliver emergency distance learning to students, we’ve been hearing about the many facets of life at home during this period.  Many families have been experiencing the challenges of working while helping their children navigate a new way of learning. Some families are navigating this situation through illness, job loss, or the uncertainties of childcare and social support. Families who have students needing specialized supports are facing these difficulties with an added layer of complexity, and students who have relied upon school as a safe place for connection, a meal, and a space for positive social interaction have been facing a large loss.

For me, the cancellation of classes has highlighted the ways that schools have helped to fill some of the holes in our societal support system. Without the every day routine of school, these gaps become larger and I worry about all of our students who may be struggling as a result.

In the meantime, our school division was delivered the bad news that we were to cut our budget by $17 million for May and June.  This was a surprise for our board and has resulted in incredibly difficult decisions across EPSB and a loss of 1686 positions.  Our board will work to make sure that these layoffs are temporary, as we will need these positions to support our students when classes resume in person.

While we still don’t know when things will return to normal, we have also been tasked with preparing for next year.  Our board has continued to meet over Zoom and recently passed a distribution of funds, allowing school leaders to begin planning for next year. These numbers were not a surprise and will mean that EPSB will have to reduce programming and look at school budget reductions, in line with our consultations during the winter.  I will devote a blog post to the budget process for next year soon.

In our upcoming board meetings, we will be discussing the work of EPSB during the pandemic, plans for next year, budgeting, fees, policy, and our calendar, among other issues.  As a part of this continuing work, I along with my colleagues on the board will also work hard to listen to the needs of our communities, students, families and staff, work with the government and advocate for the needs of public education.

It has been a year of overwhelming change, and we will continue to do what we can to work for you. While I won’t be able to see as many of my constituents at community and school events, please know that I would love to hear from you by phone, email (or Zoom), and I’m happy to attend a virtual meeting of your School Council or community group.

I’m wishing you good health, new ways of connecting, and the hope that we can all find a way to take care of each other as we go forward together.

As always, our board meetings continue to be posted and live-streamed online.

 

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Literacy Work, Upcoming Motions on # of Trustees

Here are the highlights from the February 11, 2020 board meeting:

Strategic Plan Update -Literacy

The board dove into a report on literacy within Edmonton Public Schools, which included the work to measure year-over-year student growth in literacy.  Trustees asked questions about the literacy toolkit in support of First Nations, Metis and Inuit literacy, which has been designed to include levelled readers by indigenous authors.  Trustees also asked about the high school literacy project now underway, work to support English language learners, students with learning disabilities, the impact of the curriculum review.  This discussion illustrates the complex nature of literacy in a large, urban school division.

Trustees asked administration about how the current budget reductions will impact literacy work in the district and staff discussed the need to balance efficiencies with high quality teaching and learning, and the importance of the professional development undertaken so far.

RFI

Our board has expressed concerns with a freeze to operational funding for K-12 education, while enrolment growth has been steadily increasing.  In order to ensure that we can advocate for adequate operational funding, I requested that our administration provide the following information specific to Edmonton Public Schools for the past twenty years:

  • The operational revenue EPSB has received from the Alberta Government, our student enrolment, the total revenue we have received divided per student, our enrolment growth, and a measure of inflation.

Motions

Trustees Ken Gibson and Michael Janz both put forward notices of motion for the board to debate the number of Trustees representing Edmonton Public Schools in the next municipal election.  Trustee Gibson will move that Trustees be reduced from 9 to 7.  Trustee Janz will move that Trustees be increased from 9 to 12 with Wards that match Edmonton city council wards.

Trustees also learned that the provincial budget will be tabled on February 27th.

If you have any thoughts on these motions, our work on literacy or any other comments or concerns, please don’t hesitate to get in touch: shelagh.dunn@epsb.ca, 780-429-8085.  As always, you can watch our board meeting on YouTube: