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Federal-funding formula change for Indigenous students results in $1.6 million shortfall for Exshaw School in 2020-21

“Keeping it open as is, will always be my option one."
26 Exshaw School Tipi Raising 0007
The Stoney Nakoda community raises a tipi and holds a powwow at Exshaw School in 2018. RMO FILE PHOTO

EXSHAW – A change in the federal funding formula for Indigenous students has led to a $1.6 million shortfall for the 2020-21 Exshaw School budget, leaving the local public school board in a precarious position as it scrambles to make decisions on next steps.

The Canadian Rockies Public School (CRPS) board is faced with the options of working to find the funding to cover an anticipated shortfall; restructuring to become a local school for kindergarten to Grade 3 students, or closing down completely.  

“Option one is finding the funding,” said Exshaw school board trustee Jen Smith. “Keeping it open as is, will always be my option one.”

According to CRPS administration, it received an email from the Department of Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) 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.

“The tuition agreement covered everything from snow removal to electricity for the school, including staff that was required to host and have an adequate program for their students,” said CRPS superintendent Chris MacPhee during a board meeting on Tuesday night (Sept. 24).

“They notified us it would be cancelled and we have this present year to negotiate a new tuition agreement with Stoney Education Authority and not the federal government any longer.”

In previous years, the department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (INAC), which has since been changed to Indigenous Services Canada, has federally funded Indigenous students at the Exshaw School, which has a 99 per cent Stoney Nakoda student population. However, the email indicates, as of the 2020 school year, money will instead be sent directly to the Stoney Education Authority (SEA).

“Stoney Education Authority wishes to administer provincial tuition as of September 2020,” the email said. “The funding will no longer flow through the ISC Regional Office, but will be sent directly to Stoney Nation.”

CRPS said a representative from ISC indicated the funding rates to be provided through SEA would see a drop in per student funding from roughly $19,000 to $11,000. The new amount is on par with what Alberta Education funds on a per student basis to school boards, however that funding from the province only covers the instructional costs for students. Additional funding from the province in the form of other grant programs pays for the overall operational and administrative costs of a school. The new federal funding formula, said MacPhee, does not cover operational costs of running the school itself, leaving CRPS anticipating a shortfall $1.6 million to run the Exshaw School based on its 2017-18 numbers. 

MacPhee said when the board reached out to SEA, it said it was still in negotiations with the ISC, and was unaware of what the funding would look like. MacPhee and CRPS treasurer, Mike Guindon, said they have had difficulties receiving communication from the federal department since the initial email.

“With this agreement, Mike and myself have reached out to ISC because we knew that Stoney Education Authority had a meeting with them,” said MacPhee.

“[Yet] we’ve had very little communication with ISC … We’ve made numerous attempts to contact them … We are hearing nothing. Nobody from Ottawa is communicating with us.”

In the 2017-18 school year, a total of $3.57 million was expensed to the ISC for both the salaries of staff and operational needs. For salaries alone, the cost was $2.78 million in the same year. The funding shortfall leaves the CRPS board in a precarious position.

“We obviously have a challenge within how we function unless there is a different dollar value that comes in to us,” said MacPhee.

In January, Minister of Indigenous Services, Seamus O’Regan and National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) announced a new funding model they said was meant to better support the needs of First Nations students on-reserve.

“Each regional model is aimed at ensuring that students attending First Nations schools are supported by predictable base funding that is directly comparable to what students enrolled in provincial education systems receive,” states the federal government website. “On top of this base funding, Indigenous Services Canada will be providing expanded supports for full-time kindergarten and increased language and culture programming at on-reserve schools.”

While the announcement is a massive step forward for on-reserve schools, schools like Exshaw School are an anomaly and one CRPS officials believe the federal government didn’t think of.

The board will have to make a decision soon, as it would need adequate time to make other arrangements for students should the school need to close. Unfortunately, a closure is a possibility, though the board sees that as a very last resort, some saying it shouldn’t be an option at all.

Should the efforts to find funding prove unsuccessful, there were three options for consideration presented: reconfigure the school to a local community school for kindergarten to Grade 3 while providing the educational needs for Stoney Nakoda students by welcoming them at Elizabeth Rummel School, Lawrence Grassi Middle School and Canmore Collegiate High School; close the school completely while working on a deal with the SEA for Stoney Nakoda students to attend Canmore schools; or to close the school without a tuition agreement with SEA.

The board agreed discussing closing the school was not an option at this point in time, with school board trustee Luke Sunderland indicating a move towards school closure could send a negative message to students.

“I don’t think we’re ready for [school closure], it doesn’t feel right,” he said. “Be tough and be real, but you have real students … I’m more concerned with the message [it sends] to students.”

Board chair Carol Picard said the first steps should be to engage the community and families who attend Exshaw School.

“This does not commit us to closure,” she said. “We need to do the work at the school itself, make sure they are assured we’re not sprinting towards something – we would loath to have to do any of these things.”

For now, the board has settled on doing whatever it can to keep the school open. In the interim, it will conduct as much research as possible as well as engage the community and family members involved in discussions. CRPS is hopeful the SEA will end up with more funding than ISC indicated, though should that not be the case, the board intends to work with SEA on solutions for Stoney Nakoda students.

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