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Bus fee increase in response to provincial cut to School Fee Reduction Grant

At our board meeting yesterday, Trustees discussed a proposal to raise bus fees in response to a subsidy cut from the province.

History to this decision:

On October 24, the provincial government removed the School Fee Reduction Grant to school boards.  This resulted in an immediate reduction of $5.3 million dollars for EPSB’s transportation costs, and we no longer have the surplus funds to cover this cost.

The School Fee Reduction Grant to school boards was enacted in 2017 along with An Act to Reduce School Fees.  The grant provided a subsidy for bus fees for students who live 2.4 kilometres or more from their designated school. Because of this subsidy, these families did not have to pay bus fees for students in kindergarten to grade 6, and received a subsidized ETS bus pass for $19 for students in grades 7-9. (Edmonton Public Schools did not receive a subsidy for students who live less than 2.4 kilometres from their designated school or who were not attending their designated school and full fees have always been charged for these families).

Yesterday the Board of Trustees voted to reinstate fees for families living 2.4 kilometres or greater from their designated school.  This is not a decision we took lightly.  We have received classroom and transportation cuts this year and without the provincial subsidy, we cannot take funding from the classroom to cover these costs.  We know that any increase in fees to parents has an impact on family budgets, particularly for families with low income.

Some key points:

  • The fee increase impacts only students who live 2.4 kms or more from their designated school and who have had subsidized fees. Our other families will not see fee increases in February.
  • The increase to transportation fees will take effect February 1, 2020. The increase is not retroactive, as we wanted to give families notice of this decision.
  • The board also approved charging transportation fees for Kindergarten students, who have previously received free busing, in order to preserve our funds to classrooms.
  • Special education students who receive curb service will not pay fees; transportation for these students remains no charge.

This fee increase will help us to bridge a portion of our funding gap for this year, but we will need to think more broadly about how Edmonton Public Schools provides transportation services to students, and what we charge for that service.  Our board also passed an emergent motion to engage with families about their priorities related to transportation, which will likely result in a survey to families in January.

I also requested information on how low income families can be protected from increasing fees.  Currently, families can speak with their child’s principal if they require assistance with school or transportation that present a financial hardship.

If you have any questions or concerns about fee increases, please contact me, I would love to speak with you.  I would also like to recommend speaking with your MLA and the Education Minister, Adriana LaGrange if you have any concerns about the impact of provincial budget decisions on education. A great tool for contact information for your MLA or any government Minister is “Who is my MLA?

You can view our board meeting online.  We also discussed our current education plan, annual results and advocacy to the federal government.

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Board discusses impacts of budget cuts

Our board had an eventful meeting tonight with important budget implications:

Fall Revised Budget

Edmonton Public Schools is in the unprecedented position of having a fall revised budget tabled with significant funding reductions.  We saw a mid-year unexpected budget shortfall of $34 million from our spring budget.  And this report also detailed that our 2019 revenue from the province saw a cut to funding of $23 million dollars compared to 2018.  This means we have $23 million less than last year and over 3,000 students more than last year.

In discussion, we heard that over 80% of our district costs are salaries, with the other 20% being building, supply and transportation costs.  This means that it is impossible to just find efficiencies when considering the state of funding for our district for the next four years.  This is because the province has signalled that it will keep funding for education at 2018 levels for the next four years, even though there will be an additional 60,000 students entering the K-12 education system during this time.

With funding cuts, and without funding growth to match our growing number of students, it means a radical re-shaping of education in Edmonton Public Schools.  We will need to work together with our staff, families and communities to make these decisions going forward.

Approval of spending reserves

In order to make up the shortfall in dollars we are seeing this year, Edmonton Public School Board Trustees approved spending $56 million in reserves to avoid having to re-open school budgets and prevent staff layoffs.  In approving this spend, we will have depleted our reserves by the end of the year.  Trustees discussed with our administration the choices needed to accommodate this spending and heard information about the impact on our ability to meet emerging student needs through our equity fund.  We also heard about how future funding decisions will be impacted by the depletion in our reserves, as we will now have very little flexibility to meet emerging needs.

Our board also heard about the money added back to surplus that had previously been designated to inclusive learning for external assessments and other needs.  We learned that some of these assessments will now be completed in partnership with AHS.  Our board also heard that the inclusive learning funding we receive from the province does not match our needs, as we are putting $20 million more every year into inclusive learning than we receive from the province – and this funding is based on a formula, not tied to individual student coding.

We also heard plans from our Superintendent to prepare scenarios with 8% and 10% reductions in funding for our board to contemplate, as many factors related to next year’s budget remain uncertain.  These scenarios would mean significant changes to education in our school district.

Board Chair Communications

Our Board Chair discussed our Board’s work with other Metro school boards in Edmonton and Calgary advocating for the needs of students in large cities in our province.  She also discussed our board’s response to the upcoming Choice in Education act – the position that we need more support for public education.  Our chair also signalled that our board is looking at ways to save costs and will propose to the province that we re-use a currently existing design from our last high school build to save design costs on our desperately needed high school in the south east – in the hope that we can see this school built sooner.

Board speakers

We heard from board speakers on trustee advocacy and messaging of the tone and tempo to match the threat to public education, and on increasing reporting and work to prevent and eliminate the use of seclusion rooms with students.

Professional development

The board also debated funding to support professional development of staff and voted to maintain funding this year, even though our staff numbers have increased with our growing enrolment. We discussed the importance of increasing staff capacity, particularly when we are seeing reductions in budgets as this limits our ability to fund outside supports.

Audited financial statements

We discussed the audited financial statements for 2018-2019.  Our external auditors offered a clean audit opinion on the financial statements.

If you are interested in learning more, please attend my Town Hall on Thursday night!

As always, you can watch our board meetings online:

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Adequate, Equitable Funding for Education

Yesterday’s board meeting held an important discussion for Trustees. We discussed a motion put forward by our Board Chair on the necessity for adequate, equitable funding for education:

RECOMMENDATION
That the Board of Trustees advocate to the Government of Alberta that they clearly communicate changes to the funding framework for education to Edmonton Public Schools prior to implementation and consider suggestions from Edmonton Public Schools on the draft of the framework.

Further, be it resolved that the Board of Trustees advocate for adequate, equitable funding that takes into account enrolment growth, ensuring that all children receive the support they need to be successful.

This motion was incredibly timely because our board is only just coming to terms with the impact of the provincial budget announcements.

Provincial Budget

The province has frozen K-12 education funding at 2018 levels ($8.2 billion dollars) with plans to continue this freeze of funding at $8.2 billion dollars for the next four years. This freeze is significant because by the end of the next four years, there will be an estimated 60,000 additional students in the K-12 education system in Alberta, with no new funding.

That number is a large number – 60,000 students is enough to fill 150 elementary schools or 30 high schools.  If there is no new funding entering the system, the only way to provide teachers and EAs and custodians and supports to these additional students is to re-allocate resources from currently existing schools.  This waters-down the supports that our provincial system can provide to students and increases the demands on teachers and staff who are already working hard in incredibly complex classrooms. In my opinion, that means that there will be less supports for students, and a higher chance of students slipping through the cracks in our system. And in a city like Edmonton, where our board has seen increases in students by at least 3% every year,  the effects are cumulative for every year that passes without additional funding.

Funding Formula Review

The Ministry of Education is currently in the process of reviewing how this money will be distributed to all of the school boards within the province.  Our board discussed the importance of being engaged in that process so that we can discuss the needs of Edmonton Public students while the province makes decisions about how the budget of $8.2 billion dollars should be split between all school boards and schools in this province.  We stressed the need to be informed ahead of time regarding any changes so that we are not in a position of having to respond to important funding changes mid-way through the year.

More importantly, our board discussed the importance of adequate and equitable funding.  Because adequate funding means enough resources to ensure that every student in our province has what they need to be successful – and this includes a well-supported teacher in a manageable classroom size, supports from EAs, mental health therapists, and a strong inclusive learning team. In order to do this, when our school board grows, we need funding growth to maintain these supports.

Our board will be working hard in the coming months to engage with parents, students, staff and community to listen to your values, your priorities and your concerns.  We will be working hard to make some difficult decisions together with our communities and will be doing everything we can to put the needs of our students first.  If you have a question or concern, or would like to share you thoughts with me, please reach out to me: shelagh.dunn@epsb.ca.

As always, you can watch our board meeting on You Tube:

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Board Update: October 22, 2019

Today’s board meeting was short but there are some important highlights (full meeting package and minutes are available online):

Remarks from the Board Chair:

Board Chair Estabrooks expressed that the board will be looking towards the budget announcement on Thursday, October 24th, and will be holding the government to the promise that funding for education will be maintained or increased.  Chair Estabrooks also remarked that education funding is an investment in the future.  She shared the reality that Edmonton Public Schools will be out of high school space by 2022 if a new high school is not built in the south east.

On class size funding, Chair Estabrooks expressed that our board believes it is possible to roll this funding into our overall base funding and that reducing overall funding for class sizes is a concern and an item we will be watching closely, as we look forward to future conversations.

Student senate workplan: Our three Student Trustees were sworn into office today and they discussed with the board the student senate’s work in distilling student feedback on improvement needed in the student experience to four themes: mental health, diversity and cohesion, environment, and life skills.  The student senate reported the decision to focus in depth on the theme of life skills for this year and will work towards a student symposium at the end of May.

Board chair notice of motion: A notice of motion was provided by Chair Estabrooks for discussion at our next board meeting, that Edmonton Public School Board advocate for adequate, equitable funding that takes into account enrolment growth.  EPSB has had 9 years of 3% enrolment growth, and it is likely this trend will continue.

A thank you to ASCA: I had the opportunity to thank the Alberta School Council Association for partnering with me to visit School Councils in Ward C to talk about the resources available for School Councils, and the importance of School Councils as a voice in their local school, for the board and as a voice for education in the province.

Board of Trustees with Student Trustees
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Board Update: October 8, 2019

Yesterday your Edmonton Public School Board of Trustees met for the third time this school year.  Our board meetings so far this year have been important and I’ll offer a summary below, but our full meeting package and minutes are available online.

Report on the District Feedback Survey:

The board received a report on our annual District Feedback Survey. This survey includes questions required by the province of Alberta for their annual report on accountability in education.  It also includes questions developed by Edmonton Public Schools for parents, students, staff and community partners.  I find this report interesting because it shows the areas of strength for our school district and it also shows the areas where we can look deeper for improvement.

Strategic Plan Update Report: Early Years:

Our board requests update reports on the board’s goals and strategic plan.  This report focused specifically on the work with students in the early years, before entering grade one. We heard about the wonderful partnership with Kitaskinaw Education Authority (KEA) of Enoch Cree Nation.  This project aims to build relationships between Enoch Cree language advisors, Elders, Knowledge Keepers, project staff and members of the cohort from the two jurisdictions, with a focus on using literacy-based activities in both English and Cree using culturally informed activities.

Report on the use of seclusion:

A report came back to the board on the use of seclusion rooms in the district, and the numbers were quite startling.  It is the first time these numbers have been tracked centrally at Edmonton Public Schools and the first month of using the new administrative regulation on seclusion rooms. The board and the administration engaged in a difficult but important conversation about the need to do better. We heard how work is being undertaken to prevent, minimize and eliminate the use of seclusion rooms. Board members heard about efforts to flag multiple uses of the room, and the response to work with staff to find alternatives. An example was given of the inclusive learning team visiting a school with multiple uses, spending time in the classroom to reshape strategies being used to support the student who had been placed in a seclusion room, and putting new training in place.  The board heard about consultants assisting a principal to reflect with a teacher after using a seclusion room, on what they could have done differently so that a seclusion room is not used in the future. This was important to hear, as I believe that it reflects how we can learn and change, how we can better support teachers, staff and students and work towards eliminating this practice. We also heard that administration will continue to bring updates on this data back to public board.

Our board meetings are always up on YouTube:

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Board Update: September 24, 2019

Yesterday your Edmonton Public School Board of Trustees met for the second time this school year.  It was a meeting that was longer and more emotional than most, with a total of 12 registered speakers from the public and some thoughtful debate.  I’ll offer a summary below, but our full meeting package and minutes are available online.

Remarks from the Board Chair:

Board Chair Estabrooks reminded the board of the history of Orange Shirt day, a day marking the impact of residential schools on September 30th.

Report on Community Involvement in Schools:

The board received a report on Family Engagement. Trustees asked questions about the new format of SchoolZone, School Council activities, and the Inclusive Education Parent and Community Advisory Committee, which received 91 applications for 5 spots.  I hope to hear more about the work of this committee and the First Nations, Metis and Inuit External Advisory Council.

Motion on involuntary confinement:

At our last meeting, I tabled a motion on the use of involuntary confinement in schools. The board heard from 11 speakers on this issue, including an eight-year old student of Edmonton Public Schools, and it was important for us to hear the experiences of parents and students who have been impacted by this practice.  The board ultimately passed a motion to advocate to the province for standards which clearly specify that these rooms only be used in emergency situations, and to work towards a system where these rooms are not needed or used. Trustee Ip amended a further motion to implement a timeline for preventing and phasing out this practice in Edmonton Public Schools which was tabled for further discussion.

Motion on climate strikes:

Trustees passed a motion by Trustee Janz to suggest schools in the District neither encourage or penalize students to attend the September 27th Day of Climate Action, with parent consent.  The board heard from one speaker on this motion, who is a student of EPSB and spoke to the need for adults to tackle the issue of climate change.

More to come:

Some reports were carried over to our next meeting, October 8th, as the discussion ran well into the evening.

On a personal note, it was wonderful and encouraging to see so many registered speakers at our board meeting.  Public education is a cornerstone of democracy, and it is important that a public school board hears from students, parents and community when making decisions.

Our board meetings are always up on YouTube:

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Motion on Involuntary Confinement

Tomorrow, our board will be debating and voting on a motion I put forward on the use of seclusion rooms and involuntary confinement in school.  I have introduced this motion because I believe that our board needs to have a public debate about this issue, to provide input to the provincial government while they gather feedback on the Interim Standards for Seclusion and Physical Restraint in Alberta Schools and the Interim Standards for Time-Out in Alberta Schools, and to advocate for necessary changes.

Trustees have heard from parents who have described feelings of powerlessness when their child has been restrained or confined, and we’ve heard from teachers and staff who are trying their best to meet the needs of their students and who tell us that they need seclusion rooms to keep people safe. But I don’t think that there is a teacher or staff member who wants to place a student in involuntary confinement.

When seclusion rooms are the solution to a problem, then I believe we need to start tackling the problem. To work on it, we need to think systemically and look at the big picture of education in our province.  With this motion, I am hoping to look at what we can work towards: a system where seclusion rooms are no longer needed or used.

The first part of this motion is re-affirming the first step: ensuring that no student is placed in a room involuntarily as a way to manage their behaviour or as a form of punishment.  To re-affirm that these rooms should only be used as a last resort in an emergency situation to keep people safe.  I believe that this is already spelled out in our District’s new administrative regulation, District Seclusion Rooms.  The main addition to this discussion is clear advocacy to the province to ensure that dedicated time-out rooms are also not used as a form of punishment or behaviour management.

I also think that we need to start looking beyond that, at the next steps, at what needs to change with our system so that we can work towards better supports for our students and teachers and staff. The second part of this motion allows our board to discuss and take a position on what needs to change to make sure that our system of social supports, health care, and education are working together, to make sure that we have the right professionals, the right training, the right supports, and the right funding so that we no longer need or use these rooms.