Times Associate Editor
Despite last year's massive school fee hikes across the province and a lack of follow-through by the NDP government to slash school fees in half thus far, Strathmore school boards remain consistent with their four-year trend – keeping fees low and making up cost increases by dipping into reserve surplus.
As schools welcomed back hundreds of students this week, Strathmore residents are breathing a sigh of relief of the school boards' decision to not follow soaring charges observed across Alberta during a time when oil prices are plummeting and job loss is frequent.
"Certainly we do have cost increases and many school districts from the province have increased their fees," said Bevan Daverne, Superintendent of Schools for GHSD. "Our board just felt that given some of the economics that many families are dealing with right now... and their situation is either uncertain or they're struggling right now and looking for work, the board just did not feel that this was the time to look at a fee increase."
Mandatory fees in the Golden Hills School Division, which include resource, transportation, and supply fees, remained steady, with the Christ the Redeemer Catholic School Board also leaving their fees untouched.
"They've been pretty steady for the past five years, and we didn't see any need to raise the fees beyond where they are now," said Scott Morrison, superintendent for Christ the Redeemer Catholic Schools.
"In light of the government's platform that they may be funding schools so they can actually reduce or eliminate fees, we're supportive of that. If the government says school boards you are to reduce fees and doesn't fund it, then basically we have to find the money to make up that shortfall. If they fund it then that's a really easy situation."
Calgary families, in turn, are forking over up to $500 per child in mandatory fees to cover transportation, instructional materials, and noon supervision.
Although the provincial government promised to drastically reduce the fees and remove the noon-hour supervision costs, changes have yet to be implemented. However, school boards in Strathmore were pleased to hear that the government will review funding, not impose education budget cuts, and fund for growth.
"We do know that our funding for this year appears to be effectively sort of the status quo from last year plus some of the wage increases that were provincially negotiated are being covered through our funding as well," said Daverne.
"From that perspective it was certainly quite a relief. The other thing that we're very relieved about and happy about ... the new government is saying they will be funding growth. We're very pleased to see that because we're one of the districts in the province that continues to grow and continues to add classroom space."
Daverne added that GHSD experienced large growths over the past four years, recording the largest growth numbers of any board in the province. The board struggled last year, when they were barred from accessing their reserves. After the change in government, the New Democratic Party government announced a $103 million spending spree for education, and reversed the restrictions on reserve funds.
Although fees in Strathmore remain low for now, the provincial government indicated a closer look is impending.
"We've heard a number of different things about fees, and we don't know where the government will end up with it," Daverne said. "I think there is some thought given to equalizing some of those things or removing them. We don't know. So we'll just have to wait and see. The school boards charge those fees in some ways to make up a little bit of a shortfall in funding and help cover costs. It will be interesting to see where the government goes from here."