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For the first time in several years, some schools in the Avon Maitland District School Board will see their overall budgets decrease in 2014-15. But, according to business superintendent Janet Baird-Jackson, core programs will not be affected.
“For a number of years we’ve held school budgets stable,” Baird-Jackson explained last week, after trustees approved a balanced budget that includes $197.9 million in program expenses and $12.9 million in allotments for capital projects.
She said that was done so the effects of declining enrollment — and the decreased per-pupil funding coming from the provincial government as a result — were not felt within classroom settings.
Gradually, however, the effects of that strategy began to be felt in other areas of school board expenditure. And, according to Baird-Jackson, it became evident that keeping school budgets stable isn’t necessarily crucial in an age when educators have become adept at taking advantages of efficiencies.
“What we started witnessing was that schools were saving their dollars to buy technology,” she said.
So, to help account for the fact that declining enrollment — especially as it is now being felt more acutely at the secondary level — translated this year into approximately $669,000 less in total revenue compared to 2013-14, the new Avon Maitland budget begins a phased-in approach to cutting back on over-all school budgets.
Baird-Jackson was quick to stress that expenditure by the board was actually increased in some areas for classroom supports. There’s an overall increase in educational assistants, she noted, as well as enhancements for a relatively new program known as “Learning for All,” through which “coaches” are dispatched to schools to help deal with students who have been recognized as needing extra attention to succeed.
But on a board-wide basis, this is the first time in several years that in-class expenditures have fallen.
Baird-Jackson said the first schools to feel the squeeze will be those that have been part of the first two phases of the so-called “Next Generation Learning” program, including Stratford Central, Northwestern, and its feeder elementary schools. In those schools, beginning in Sept. 2014, every Grade 7 and 8 student will be given an iPad, and their studies will use technology-based approaches to a much greater degree than in the past.
Schools which have already been phased in to the iPad project report a significant drop in photocopying and other related traditional classroom expenses.
“When it’s fully implemented, we expect approximately $200,000 in annual savings,” Baird-Jackson said of the move to Next Generation Learning. And that takes into account the expenses incurred to equip all students — who, as they advance through secondary school, will keep their tablet devices — with iPads.
“With the new model of learning, we’re also implementing a new model of looking at school budgets,” Baird-Jackson commented.
According to the report provided to trustees for their decision about the budget on June 24, “The biggest changes in staffing, impacting both salaries and benefits (in the 2014-15 budget), is the inclusion of the ‘Year 5’ schools for Full-Day Kindergarten (FDK), which results in an increase in support staff of Early Childhood Educators and Educational Assistants.”
FDK was an election issue, to a degree, with some opponents of the ruling Liberals questioning whether it should be carried out to completion next year. But with the Liberals earning a majority victory, it’s now almost certain that the proposed provincial budget containing support for Year 5 will soon be approved.
Baird-Jackson said some other education-related initiatives contained in that proposed budget were: additional supports for Aboriginal education; enhanced funding in the “Student Success” envelope for students at risk of failing or dropping out; and more money for Specialist High Skilled Majors. She said school boards expect there will be additional funding — somewhere in the range of $59 million, province-wide — made available for those programs, over and above the so-called “Grants for Student Needs” announced on a board-by-board basis in March of this year.