EDMONTON — If cutbacks to education continue, education in Alberta will deteriorate the same way it did in the United States, which now ranks 17th worldwide in terms of education quality.
This warning comes from Debbie Engel, the chair of the board of Edmonton Catholic Schools, which is now trying to deal with a $9.6-million budget shortfall.
"I'm just saying we can't have any more cuts or it would be the beginning of the erosion," Engel said in an interview. "We will start to climb down from the excellent position we have right now.
"This is just the second year (of cutbacks), but we don't want to start going down because look at the public education in the United States."
Edmonton Catholic is preparing to cut 97 teaching positions, 63 support staff and 24 custodial positions this year to make up for the funding shortfall. Of the 63 support staff cut, most would be from special education programs.
"The bottom line is a $9.6-million operating deficit for the district if we didn't cut staff," Engel said.
The district will still have a $1.8-million operating deficit, leaving its "rainy day fund" at $2.4 million.
As a result of the cuts, there will be larger classes and more classes with more than one grade, fewer extracurricular activities and less professional development for staff.
Moreover, "principals and vice-principals will have to spend more time teaching" than administering schools.
Engel said the staff cuts would affect only probationary and temporary contracts.
"No one with a permanent teaching contract will lose their job."
Cutting from the district's central office was impossible because the board had already done that last year, Engel said. The central office is now operating with "a skeleton staff."
Edmonton Catholic now has the lowest percentage of any Alberta district (tied with Red Deer Public) going to board and administration costs.
"We couldn't go there; therefore we had to go to the schools because 80 per cent of our monies go to wages," Engel said. "We just don't have enough to keep our current staffing levels."
Alberta Education increased the overall education budget this year but only enough to cover the promised 4.5-per-cent wage increase for teachers. It cut back many other programs, including the English Language Learning program and the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement.
The board is now applying for funding from a $12-million government "special needs" pot. Engel hopes to land between $500,000 and $1 million out of that fund.
She also hopes that when the district gets its enrollment numbers at the end of August, it will be able to reinstate many of the 63 support staff now being cut.
Education Minister Dave Hancock has said changes in class sizes will likely not affect education.
Engel's response: "I think he is right at this point; however, how many years in a row do you (cut the education budget) without eroding our education system? That's what happened in the U.S."
Rather than cutting essential services like education, the government should look at funding these services through oil royalties or even a sales tax, Engel said.
"That's where they have to go," she said. "If they are going to cut our basic education, health and welfare services, they better ask us what we want as Albertans."