WHEREAS access to good quality education is vital for the youth of Alberta no matter where they live; and
WHEREAS recent changes in provincial grant funding to schools has not been effective in addressing the challenges of adequately funding rural and remote schools, particularly those with low enrollments; and
WHEREAS it is difficult to secure qualified professionals to deliver services in more remote areas of the province and there is an expectation for higher pay in remote locations; and
WHEREAS some rural school divisions must supply teacher housing in remote schools to attract teachers to come to their communities; and
WHEREAS large geographic areas make it much more costly to provide operational supports for education in areas such as mental health, transportation services, and facility operations; and
WHEREAS student transportation costs are constantly increasing in recent years; and
WHEREAS requiring students to travel long distances to school reduces time available for learning, extra-curricular, and non-school activities; and
WHEREAS because of distances and remote locations, it is very expensive to acquire replacement parts for repairing and maintaining school buildings and school bus fleets; and
WHEREAS many operational costs to maintain facilities associated with contracting services such as waste removal, snow removal, grounds maintenance, and building maintenance have much higher rates in rural and remote communities in the province; and
WHEREAS large increases in insurance costs over the past three years (such costs have doubled in some school districts) has further strained the operational budgets of rural schools; and
WHEREAS schools in northern parts of the province face higher utility costs associated with colder weather, longer heating seasons, and delivery costs for the utility; and
WHEREAS the federal carbon tax has added operational costs for facilities and transportation areas for school divisions;
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Rural Municipalities of Alberta request that the Government of Alberta engage with rural school boards and rural municipalities to develop solutions to support the sustainability of small rural schools.
Many rural areas have seen population decreases over the past 20 years. The utilization rate of many rural schools has decreased significantly. With changes to the funding formula in recent years, schools with low enrollment rates receive less operational funding even though operational costs continue to rise. In the Peace River School Division, plant operations and maintenance funding decreased based on the recently introduced Rural Small Schools Grant funding formula, which is based on the utilization rate of the schools:
|Year||Plant operations/maintenance funding|
In the same timeframe, there has been a 30% increase in the cost of janitorial supplies and significant cost increases in other areas. The total cost of services, contracts, and supplies for 10 months in the 2021-2022 year (Sept – June) are already 6% ($823,176) higher than the total for the 2020-2021 fiscal year.
Facing funding shortfalls, rural school divisions are forced to cut services and close schools. In some cases, it is not feasible to close a school because of distances students would need to travel to the next closest school. Communities are often devastated when their local school is closed. For example, the Nampa Public School in the Village of Nampa, within the borders of Northern Sunrise County, is being threatened with closure as the enrolment is nearing the threshold where it is not financially viable to keep the school open. If this school would close, the domino effect this would have on residents and businesses could eventually lead to the Village no longer being viable.
Since the federal carbon tax was implemented in 2018, it has added operational costs for facilities and transportation areas for school divisions without any additional funding provided or any rebates available. On April 1, 2022, the carbon tax increased to $50 per ton. At the current rate, carbon tax will cost the Peace River School Division over $200,000 in additional operating costs for the 2022-2023 school year.
The carbon tax will continue to increase in the coming years to a price of $170 per ton by 2030. It is estimated that this will add $680,000 in operational costs per year for PRSD by 2030. Without receiving additional funding or a rebate for carbon tax, school divisions will find it very difficult to continue to operate. This begs the question – if farmers raising crops are partially exempt from carbon taxes, why aren’t schools exempt? Is not the raising of our children of even more importance than raising crops?
RMA has no active resolutions directly related to this issue.
Alberta Education recognizes that rural schools face unique challenges in the delivery of educational services. Small rural schools are unable to realize economies of scale on staffing and other expenses and can be disproportionately affected by fluctuations in student enrolment.
Alberta’s education system transitioned to the current Kindergarten to Grade 12 funding model in the 2020/21 school year. Funding is allocated based on the three-year weighted moving average (WMA) full-time equivalent enrolment instead of on a per-student basis. The WMA methodology helps to smooth fluctuations in enrolment growth and alleviate uncertainty of funding. Using WMA enrolments benefits school authorities experiencing enrolment decline which are typically rural schools by ensuring predictable funding ahead of the school year for operational planning. This funding certainty provides transition time for shrinking authorities to adjust to lower enrolment levels.
This model also includes the Rural Small Schools Grant, which was noted in RMA’s resolution and is designed to address challenges with operating small rural schools. Under this model, these schools are provided a guaranteed block of funding to ensure that funding is predictable and sustainable. In Budget 2022, the funding rate for this grant was increased by one per cent, matching increases to the base instruction rate, to ensure schools funded under this model were treated fairly. This grant totalled $127 million for the 2022/23 school year.
School authorities receive funding for school operations and maintenance. The Operations and Maintenance (O&M) Grant is provided to school authorities to address their responsibilities for the operation, maintenance, safety and security of all school buildings. In the 2022/23 school year, we invested $681 million to support the day-to-day upkeep of school facilities, including $594 million for the O&M Grant and $87 million for the Infrastructure Maintenance and Renewal Grant. The department increased the O&M Grant rate by one per cent in the 2022/23 school year to address increased cost pressures related to the operation and maintenance of school buildings.
School authorities and community partners indicated that the previous Plant Operations and Maintenance Grant was not meeting the needs of schools. In particular, a focus on per-student funding did not adequately direct funds to where they were needed. Under the current funding model, the O&M Grant shifts away from a primarily per-student model to an equitable school space model. This change provides increased funding certainty for school authorities, as school space remains relatively constant year over year. The current calculation reflects the actual utilization of schools because it focuses on the instructional area and not gross area. This approach is beneficial in that it focuses on usable instructional space and considers non-traditional and emerging school designs.
Alberta has a diverse geographic landscape with many regions that face unique challenges and have unique needs. The Geographic Grant is provided to school authorities to better address their geographic location contexts and enhance equity and fairness in availability of education opportunities. Factors such as rurality, latitude, sparsity and area served by the school jurisdiction are taken into consideration for the distribution of this grant. Many rural school authorities have received significant funding support through the grant. In the 2022/23 school year, the Geographic Grant provided $161 million in financial support to school authorities.
I recognize school transportation costs and rural ride times are a concern for rural families. In November 2022, I received my new mandate letter from the Honourable Danielle Smith, Premier of Alberta. The letter specifies pursuing opportunities and strategies to address cost pressures and ride times for school boards and families. We continue to review transportation throughout the province and will be implementing an updated transportation funding model for the 2023/24 school year.
Education funding under Budget 2022 increased by $142 million to more than $8.4 billion for the 2022/23 fiscal year. This increased funding ensures school authorities can hire the required number of teachers and support staff, address increases in property and vehicle insurance premiums and mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on student learning. Alberta Education also provided in-year funding for the new teacher salary agreement, the Fuel Price Contingency Program and support for Ukrainian students. Alberta Education’s funding framework provides school authorities with increased flexibility to allocate funds to meet their local needs. We respect the autonomy of school authorities to manage their resources and make decisions that reflect local priorities.
RMA appreciates the Government of Alberta’s funding mechanisms to support rural school capital and operational costs. There are significant barriers that rural schools face and this funding will help to alleviate the issues faced by rural communities. Although the funding is a step in the right direction, there is a further need to develop strategies that will reduce the issues faced by rural schools. The development of these strategies will require cooperative work between the province and the municipalities and school boards impacted. In rural communities, schools play a role beyond education; they are often viewed as communities hubs and a symbol of a rural community’s resilience. Engaging with school authorities and rural leaders on how to best leverage schools and support their long-term viability is a required next step beyond funding.
RMA assigns this resolution the status of Intent Not Met and will continue to advocate for provincial engagement on this issue.