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Alberta government will pay for teacher salary increases PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 12 August 2010 12:35

School boards must rearrange budgets after predicting over 500 job cuts

After four months spent preparing for the worst, Alberta school boards were relieved last month to discover teacher salary increases will be paid by the provincial government, as per their earlier agreement to do so.

Education Minister Dave Hancock said last month he’s disappointed school boards resorted to cutting jobs when faced with dire budgetary concerns.
Photo courtesy of Alberta Government
Education Minister Dave Hancock told school boards in March they would have to dip into their reserve funds and even run budget deficits in order to pay for the 2.92 per cent salary increase – which Hancock and Premier Ed Stelmach had promised would come from provincial coffers back in 2007 – due to the tight spending restraints outlined in the provincial 2010 budget.

On July 7, however, Hancock announced the latest fiscal year was better than expected, which means school boards can expect the full $66 million from the province after all.

“I want to again stress that the government of Alberta, our premier Ed Stelmach and I have at all times indicated that our commitments would be met, whether in this fiscal year or in future years,” said Hancock in his announcement, which was sent to school boards and the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA).

Upon hearing the news, workers in the education centre were relieved and thankful to put the stress of the previous months behind them.

“This is very good news for Alberta’s students and our young teachers,” said Carol Henderson, president of the ATA, in a statement released in response to Hancock’s announcement.

Before the unexpected good news broke, school boards across the province were getting ready to cut close to 500 full-time teaching positions, including 192 at the Calgary Board of Education (CBE). The first to get the boot would have been new teachers on temporary and probationary contracts.

Now that money is rolling in, principals and school board officials have the chance to ask those young teachers to come back to work, although the task may prove to be challenging.

“Some of those teachers may very well have already moved to Toronto or Vancouver or anywhere else but here and gotten work,” said George Lane, a CBE trustee for Wards 6 and 7.

“Principals are going to have to work extra hard throughout the summer to ensure they have everything together before the school year starts.”

Furthermore, Lane says while the announcement is certainly welcome, it won’t fix everything, and it underlines the stress school boards are put through by the Ministry of Education every year when it comes to funding.

“The Alberta government and the Ministry of Education commits to education funding in three-year plans, but we [school boards] are funded year by year,” explained Lane.

“So it’s very difficult, because we file our budgets based on what we feel we’re going to need, and we have to basically assume the money will be there waiting for us. And – as we learned these past few months – sometimes it isn’t, and then sometimes it is.”

Hancock attributed the initial inability to fund the salary increase to both the economic recession and to the formula Statistics Canada was using to calculate the Alberta Average Weekly Earnings Index – used to determine, on average, how much Albertans are earning in all professions – which was changed in 2009.

Hancock and Premier Stelmach’s agreement in 2007 to make sure teachers’ salaries reflected increases in this average was dealt a blow when, during the economic recession, the Index – using the new formula – was calling for increases of 4.53, 5.99, and 2.92 per cent in 2008, 2009 and 2010, respectively.

Because the provincial government had already budgeted for the increase in 2009 to be 4.82 per cent by using the old formula, government had to scramble to cover the additional 1.17 per cent increase. Furthermore, while an arbitrator was called in to assess how best to administer the Alberta Average Weekly Earnings Index and still hold up the intention of the initial agreement, Hancock was unable to budget for the 2.92 per cent increase for 2010.

“There were factors that were keeping the minister from honouring his commitment on time,” said Kathy Telfer, spokesperson for the Ministry of Education. “But we had a much better fiscal year, with higher oil revenues and energy revenues than we anticipated, so the minister was true to his word. It was just a matter of time.”

Until the money came in, Hancock was urging school boards to still complete and pass their budgets by June, but not resort to cutting teaching positions. Instead, he suggested officials reach into their boards’ savings to pay for the salary increases and trust him to deliver eventually, even if that meant running deficits. However, Lane said the CBE was not prepared to compromise financial security for the minister’s promise.

“It’s a slippery slope that comes with running deficits,” said Lane. “You allow one to go through, and soon it’s very hard to dig yourself out.”

The CBE was forced to run a $10 million deficit in the initial budget passed in June, which was part of what Lane called a “blended approach” to Hancock’s red flag.

“We used all of our reserves set aside for this year, we ran the deficit and we had to reduce the number of teaching positions, so it wasn’t pretty, but it was the best we could do.

“When the minister said, ‘Dip into your reserves’, he failed to realize that some boards have larger reserves than others. We were one of the others. It’s usually recommended that we keep about 10 days worth of spending in our reserves.

“Our budget is slightly over $1 billion, and we operate a little over 200 days out of the year. You may think $20 million is a lot of money. Unfortunately, for us, it’s really not.”

Now that jobs once thought lost have been saved, school boards are not out of the woods yet. Lane said the CBE will still be forced to hire fewer teachers this year, and while class sizes in the lower grades will remain smaller, class sizes in the upper grades will have to be made larger.

And although the education system has just emerged from a challenging few months, parents have also felt the sting of what many have called an unnecessary and painful experience.

“I am very angry that we were put through all this stress for something that will not happen,” said Katrina Palsky, a parent of a severe needs child, who commented on Hancock’s blog in response to the letter sent out with his good news.

“In the climate of funding in June, the school could not commit to the staff person that had worked with our daughter last year because of seniority and very few support positions available. I resent that my daughter’s education was disrupted for the province’s inability to announce proper funding on time.

“So, yeah! The money is there. But shame on the government for waiting to tell us.”