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Exshaw School to remain open after three-year funding agreement reached

Families who send their children to Exshaw School are breathing a deep sigh of relief this week as a recent announcement secures their education at the school for the next three years
26 Exshaw School Tipi Raising 0001
A final round dance is held during a powwow at Exshaw School in 2018. The school, which has a student population that is 98 per cent First Nation, will be repurposed at the end of the 2019-20 school year after the public school board and Indigenous Services Canada were unable to resolve a funding shortfall the school board estimated it would be faced with after the federal government announced changes to Indigenous education funding in 2019. RMO FILE PHOTO

EXSHAW – Now that the dust has finally settled in terms of funding for the Exshaw School over the next three years, the local school board and community members are breathing a sigh of relief.

Canadian Rockies Public School (CRPS) and Stoney Education Authority (SEA) announced last Thursday (Jan. 30) that Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) agreed to continue funding Exshaw School under the current funding model over the next three years – giving parents, students and staff something to celebrate.

“This is what the parents, the grandparents and community members wanted,” said Rachel Snow who has grandchildren who attend Exshaw School and who attended the school herself.

“They do feel that they have a stake in the Exshaw School, so they are pleased that it’s going to be funded and continued.”

The announcement comes after CRPS passed a motion on Jan. 23 to close the Exshaw School. The decision was made after months of attempts by the board and administration to engage with ISC over changes being made by the federal government to the model for Indigenous student funding.

The board felt it was running out of time to make appropriate financial decisions for the next school year.

However as a result of the new three-year funding agreement, trustees voted to rescind the motion to repurpose Exshaw School at a special board meeting Saturday (Feb. 1).

“Obviously there is an immediate sense of relief for our board and senior management,” said CRPS superintendent Chris MacPhee.

“But I am more pleased with the fact that our families are able to exercise their choice in where they wish to have their children educated. Also, the stability and continuity this commitment letter presents for our young staff.”

For Exshaw School board trustee Jen Smith, the announcement is the one she’s been hoping for.

“I am just so pleased that we have three years to work in partnership with SEA and ISC to come up with an innovative program to benefit both Morley and Exshaw,” she said.

ISC, SEA and CRPS met last Wednesday (Jan. 29) after Banff-Airdrie MP Blake Richards addressed parliament during Question Period, calling out the federal government for closing the doors on Indigenous students.

“Exshaw School is home to nearly 200 First Nations students," Richards said. "The Liberals have terminated a 47-year-old agreement and cut funding for the students. The school’s left with an insurmountable $1.6 million shortfall and will be forced to close their doors if Indigenous Services Canada continues to refuse to work towards a solution.

“Why are they shutting the door on Indigenous students and the school they’ve chosen to attend?”

In addition, Alberta's Minister of Education Adriana LaGrange and Minister of Indigenous Relations Rick Wilson wrote a letter to ISC in December concerning the potential closure of Exshaw School.

MacPhee said the board is thankful to those politicians that offered their support.

“It has been a long process to get to this point and we remain thankful for the support we obtained from both the [ministers], and our MP Blake Richards,” he said.

“Now our main concern lies with supporting the families who have made Canadian Rockies their educational choice, as well as rebuilding a relationship that has been damaged by the type of process implemented by the federal government.”

That long process, Snow said, didn’t feel like an honest one.

“I think when we actually thought about this, we started questioning who actually had the Jan. 8 meeting,” said Snow, referring to a community meeting held by SEA and facilitated by ISC in Morley.

“There is no SEA board in place, so what ISC was telling us wasn’t true. They were not being forthcoming with all their information. Look at the school – it has a high population of First Nations students from Morley and they are offering good programs and the kids are going – they’re graduating and moving on.”

Snow expressed her frustrations with the process over the last seven months, saying all the fear and uncertainty could have been avoided with more transparent communication.

“It should not have been something we heard through one botched email in September, followed by conflicting information right up until the new year,” she said.

“All you do is stress out the parents, the students, the teachers and the community. You start to build animosity and anger with each other by not understanding what’s going on. It had the potential to be even uglier than what it is. It was just a very non-transparent process for the parents and for the children – and I think for the community.”

The saga has been ongoing since August when CRPS received a letter from ISC indicating it would be terminating a long-standing tuition agreement dating back to 1973. CRPS contacted ISC to try to understand how these changes would affect Exshaw School specifically, which has a 99 per cent Stoney Nakoda First Nation population. CRPS estimated the changes would result in a $1.6 million shortfall.

Since that time, CRPS attempted to meet with the federal department to discuss the issue, as well as held community meetings with both Exshaw and the Stoney Nakoda community.

Officials with CRPS said the decision to close the school and repurpose the building last Thursday (Jan. 23) was a result of a lack of clarity surrounding funding numbers from ISC, which left the board in a precarious position. It could not budget for Exshaw School without knowing what the funding arrangement would be.

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