'It's not sustainable': Edmonton Public Schools forced to dip into reserve funds to cover costs for their 2024-2024 budget

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While an objective look at Edmonton Public Schools 2024-2025 budget shows an increase from the previous year, staff said they will be forced to dip into their accumulated surplus, which is “not sustainable.”

At a special Friday meeting, staff presented the 2024-25 budget to the division’s board of trustees. Staff said the increase in funding is directly associated with the division’s increased enrolments, but there was no grant funding rate increases and no inflationary relief provided in the budget.

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Superintendent Darrel Robertson said they are being presented with a “very tight budget.” To combat inflationary pressures on utilities, insurances and increased staffing costs, the division will need to take $16.5 million from their accumulated operating surplus funds, bringing the number down to $20 million. The division will also take out $6.95 million of their capital reserve funds.

“The challenge is that all of our costs are increasing, including our staffing costs. It’s getting tighter and tighter,” Robertson said.

“This budget reflects an investment of almost $16.5 million of our accumulated surplus in operations and that’ll bring our accumulated surplus in operations down to about a per cent and a half. It’s not sustainable. We really do need a solution to a funding formula into the future because we are running out of surplus to sort of smooth over the bumps.”

The total revenue for the division is approximately $1.35 billion. This is an increase of approximately $5.4 million compared to the 2024-2025 Distribution of Funds report, and a $65.7-million increase from the 2023-24 budget.

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Higher enrolment, not enough staff

Todd Burnstad, chief financial officer with Edmonton Public, said the division’s year-over-year enrolment growth is projected at 5.2 per cent or just under 6,000 students. The project student enrolment for the 2024-2025 year is 120,224 students including early childhood services and 115,805 full-time enrolment students.

Burnstad said this is the third year since where the division’s enrolment growth has exceeded five per cent. Since 2020-2021 the division has grown by 17,438 students — an 18 per cent increase over the last five years.

“The composition of our students is also becoming increasingly diverse as we are seeing additional growth in both our English as an additional language and our refugee students relative to our entire student population,” Burnstad said. 

“The division is experiencing inflationary pressures on things like utilities, insurance, software licences, which increase our fixed and committed costs.”

The largest expense for the division, said Burnstad, is salaries, wages and benefits for employees, resulting in an increased cost of $16 million.

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A total of 74.4 per cent of the total division funds is being allocated to support students in the classroom, a 0.2 per cent increase from the 2023-2024 year. The remaining balance will be used to cover fixed and committed costs as well as administrative costs required for the division.

While the total division staff full-time equivalent’s (FTE) are increasing by 426 compared to the 2023-2024 budget, 278 additional staff were already hired and included in the May 6 numbers. The previous budget included additional funding through the Supplemental Enrolment Growth Grant of $6.4 million and anticipates receiving $3.8 million for the Weighted Moving Average funding adjustment. The funding was used towards hiring staff in the current year.

In reality, staff FTE’s will increase by 148 for the 2024-25 year, since 278 additional staff were already hired during the current year while the enrolment hike is projected at 5.2 per cent.

“Schools have spent on average approximately 97 per cent of the funds that they receive on staff to open their doors for September,” Robertson said.

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Robertson said the division will fall short of hiring the adequate number of staff because it simply cannot afford the numbers. He expects that while the division will try to keep class sizes reasonable, he anticipates some larger class sizes, and while it has some ability to alleviate the pressure, “funds aren’t unlimited.”

He said that while the division will be able to distribute some funding in the fall for staffing, it will not be able to hire the necessary staff needed to meet the current population growth. He used the example of wanting to double new staff hires but said “that would not be our reality”

‘I hope the province will answer that call’

Trustee Saadiq Sumar, along with several other trustees, urged the government to make further investments to the education sector, pointing to the financial constraints that were detailed in Friday’s report.

“We’re seeing more and more people move to our province, which is great. But students, families and schools are calling as well for more investment in education and I hope that the province will answer the call,” Sumar said.

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Board chairwoman Julie Kusiek said while it appears there is an increase in budget and that the division is hiring more staff, the funding and the hiring are not proportional to the need they are seeing.

“I refuse to give up hope. I want the message to be that Edmonton Public is here to be solution-orientated and to make some changes happen in collaboration with the government, because the impact of not doing so is too great,” Kusiek said.

In a statement to Postmedia, Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides said the province was “stepping up” and investing more in education to help accommodate the growth, including hiring new staff and building 19 schools across the province.

“We are seeing a record number of families move to the province, because they want to be part of the Alberta Advantage. Last year alone, our population grew by 200,000, which represents the largest annual increase in Alberta history. Over the next three years, we have planned to invest more than $1.2 billion, which will go directly to hiring more teachers and other educational staff,” Nicolaides said.

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