Cuts, fees, belt-tightening lead Clearview to balanced budget

Cuts to transportation and school hours, in addition to general belt-tightening, has led the Clearview School Board to...

…what it anticipates will be a balanced budget.

Peter Neale, Clearview’s associate superintendent for business and finance, made it clear that the balanced budget in part is a result of cuts, new fees and reduced hours.

“I am really proud (of our staff),” Neale said. “The overall goal was to find reductions everywhere except in the schools. Everyone did everything they could…to make sure kids had all the money they could.”

The Alberta government requires a minimum of 475 hours of education for Kindergarten students, 950 hours for grades 1 to 9 and 1,000 hours for high school. Traditionally, Clearview has provided beyond those minimum hours.

In the 2014-15 year, grades 1-9 had 970 hours of instruction, Neale said. Next year, it’ll be the 950, a reduction of 20 hours – or a school year of 183 days going down to 175. In Stettler, Kindergarten students receive nearly double the required hours of instruction as Stettler Elementary School offers full-day Kindergarten. While the full-day Kindergarten will still be available next year, the students will have a teacher half the day and a Kindergarten co-ordinator the other half, effectively cutting those instructional hours back to the provincial minimum, Neale noted.

Most of the cuts being made in staffing comes at the expense of support staff, with cuts to secretaries, librarians and teaching assistants. Clearview’s teaching assistants is where most of the cuts will be made, Neale said.

The board also took aim at its bussing routes, cutting three routes altogether and stopping double-runs in one location.

Double-runs, where a bus will pick up high school students and transfer them to a bus that heads to Stettler, then double back for local school students, are in place in Big Valley, Erskine and Botha. Erskine and Botha only have double-runs in the afternoon, while Big Valley has them both morning and night.

Starting next year, though, the morning double-run in Big Valley will be one single run, meaning students will have a longer journey to school by bus.

A Stettler route joins Byemoor and Brownfield in having a route discontinued. The students from these routes will be absorbed into other nearby routes. While again this saves the school board money, it will increase the length of time the students spend on the bus, something Neale said is an unhappy compromise.

“We have pretty aggressive targets” he said in reference to the amount of time students spend on the bus. While they were able to meet these targets for this school year, he anticipates that will not be the case in the fall.

“Parents usually are very good about accommodating students’ longer bus rides, though we like to keep them shorter,” Neale said. Books, homework and electronic devices help keep students occupied on the longer runs.

Another change to transportation is an increase of the transportation fee for Stettler students. The fee, which has been $200 since 1995, is going up for the first time in 20 years to $300 – a number that is mostly just an adjustment for inflation, Neale explained.

The School of Choice fee – where students choose to go to a school rather than the one in their community – also rises from $200 to $300 a year.

Finally, a fee is being added for yard service, which has a bus go down a driveway onto acreages to pick up children, rather than having them wait a few kilometres down the drive on the highway side. It, too, will be $300.

“We’ve been looking at yard service, and we were told we should make it part of budget discussions so we did,” Neale said. “We wanted an easy approach” to billing for the service, and so made it a flat fee.

For families who are choosing school of choice and yard service, the fees come to $600. Yard service is not offered in the Town of Stettler.

Using teachers more effectively next year will end up saving the school board money too, Neale said. While the logistics are currently still in the works, the plan is to have existing teachers at Clearview schools work closer to the 905 teaching hours spelled out in the collective agreement with the province.

Neale said that while teachers spend a lot of their work hours outside of teaching hours, grading work, planning activities and in other school-related tasks, the easiest way to cut back on staff without sacrificing student learning is by ensuring the time teachers spend in school is mostly devoted to actual teaching.

Neale was the first to admit that pushing teachers closer to the 905 hours is difficult, because teachers put in a lot of hours doing those other tasks that come as a part of the instruction process.

“Everyone understands this is happening to all teachers,” Neale said. “The goal here is to be fair to everyone.”

While Clearview will see fewer teachers in its schools’ halls this year, the ratio of student to teacher is projected to improve because of the plans regarding teaching hours.

Until the schools in the division have their individual budgets submitted to the board, Neale said he won’t know if there needs to be further adjustment, but he said the schools are aware of how tight the budgets need to be and he expects that once they’re in, the school board will be balanced – despite no access to reserves.