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Feds plan to meet with local school division after funding shortfall identified for Exshaw School

“We’d probably be pretty crowded if [the students] were to come back to Morley ... we’d have to look at possibly building another school."

CANMORE – While the Canadian Rockies Public School (CRPS) board continues to grapple with uncertainty after learning of a funding formula change that will affect Exshaw School next year, the Department of Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) says it plans to meet with the board, as well as with Stoney Education Authority (SEA), in the coming weeks.

CRPS identified a $1.6 million dollar shortfall in the new funding formula beginning September 2020 from ISC that would see student funding sent to Stoney Education Authority under the new First Nations Control of First Nations Education initiative, it has yet to receive any communication from the Department, or any clarity as to what the next school year's funding will look like.

“My thoughts as to why they haven’t communicated with the board is that they are currently in negotiations with Stoney [Education Authority] and cannot share any details while they are in negotiations, as it would be counter to the goal of Truth and Reconciliation,” said CRPS board treasurer, Mike Guindon.

According to CRPS administration, it received an email from the Department of Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) in August indicating it was terminating a long-standing tuition agreement dating back to 1973, resulting in a $1.6 million shortfall effective for the next school year.

After two weeks of back and forth correspondence, a spokesperson for the ISC finally provided a response to the Outlook, though CRPS said it has yet to receive any communication at all. Rola Tfaili, media relations specialist for ISC, said the change in funding is due to the government’s Truth and Reconciliation initiative.

“In August 2019, the Department provided notice to the Canadian Rockies Regional Division No. 12 that the existing tuition agreement from 1973 will be terminated, as the Stoney Education Authority would be taking over administration of the provincial tuition starting September 2020,” said Tfaili in an email.

“It was explained that First Nations control of First Nations Education is a Government of Canada priority and that we are respecting the request of the Stoney Education Authority; furthermore, this will provide time to negotiate a modern Education Services Agreement.”

While the initiative is a positive one, schools like Exshaw School are an anomaly among public school boards, with 99 per cent of its students coming from the Stoney Nakoda First Nation. With the current funding formula, CRPS is in a precarious position with few options currently on the table; it can find the funding to cover the anticipated shortfall, restructuring to become a local school for kindergarten to Grade 3 students, or close down completely.

SEA’s superintendent, Bill Shade, said if it were to close, Morley schools do not have the capacity for the roughly 200 students that currently attend Exshaw School.

“We’d probably be pretty crowded if [the students] were to come back to Morley,” said Shade.

“We’d have to look at possibly building another school… We’re supportive of the Canadian Rockies and hoping they can remain open, because one thing we do like is to give the Stoney Nakoda Nation kids an option.”

Shade said he hopes the public board is able to work it out should the funding come in as it’s currently expected to at roughly $11,000 per student.

“We have no control over what Indigenous Services provides, it’s something we’ve had to deal with for a number of years,” he said.

“It’s nothing new that First Nations schools are funded below the national standard … we’re hoping it’s going to be funded appropriately.”

Tfaili said none of the numbers for the 2020-21 school year have been worked out yet, however, and it’s unlikely those numbers will come in anytime soon with an impending election.

“The changes to funding formulas are to enhance support for First Nations Control of First Nations Education. In this context the Stoney Education Authority would be taking over the administration of provincial tuition. The calculations for this have not yet been completed for the 2020 school year,” she wrote.

“The current funding agreement between the Stoney First Nation Education Authority and Indigenous Services Canada remains in effect. The Department funds the school district under the current agreement at a level of approximately $15,000 per funded student, which totals more than $4 million annually.”

However, Guindon explained that those numbers are representative of all the First Nations students the board takes in as a whole and is not an indication of what Exshaw School will receive come September 2020.

“The information is not an indication of what the school board will receive under a new tuition agreement. They cited the current state of affairs,” said Guindon.

“The $4.2 million we receive annually is for all First Nations attending a number of our schools – not just Exshaw. Divide that funding by the total First Nations enrolments of 283 for 2017-18 in all our schools, which are the only final numbers they can quote as 2018-19 isn’t final yet.”

While many questions are still unanswered by the Department, Tfaili said it does plan on meeting with both parties in the future.

“It is important to note that there are no financial losses for the school at present and to emphasize that no changes to the current agreement have been made at this time. The Department will be meeting with both the First Nation and the School Division in the coming weeks and months to determine future funding,” she wrote.

“Indigenous Services Canada continues to work in partnership with the Stoney First Nation Education Authority and the School District to facilitate the transfer and administration of the provincial tuition program.”

In the meantime, Shade said the SEA would ensure CRPS gets whatever funding SEA is given.

“Whatever Indigenous Services gives to us, whatever there is for a school like Exshaw, they will get it,” he said.

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