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School boards' calendar difference costs $450K

Discrepancies in next year's school calendar will virtually wipe out the transportation co-operative fund shared between Northern Lights School Division (NLSD) and Lakeland Catholic School District (LCSD), drawing an estimated $450,000 from it.

Discrepancies in next year's school calendar will virtually wipe out the transportation co-operative fund shared between Northern Lights School Division (NLSD) and Lakeland Catholic School District (LCSD), drawing an estimated $450,000 from it.

An agreement between the school boards to jointly provide transportation to students means Alberta Education gives the school boards a co-operative grant of about $250,000 a year to help fund transportation costs, which varies based on enrolment levels, according to Matt Richter, who is employed as NLSD's director of transportation, but reports to both districts' superintendents and arranges transportation for both local school boards.

Any residual funds from that grant are carried over to the next year, resulting in the co-operative fund, he added.

There are always variances in calendars between the school boards, but this year, according to Richter, the calendars are more diverse than usual and the fund will be virtually wiped out.

"This coming year is going to be the biggest year that money is going to be pulled from it by far," said Richter in a phone interview on May 19. "This current year was pretty good, I think last year was OK, and I think the year before that was pretty diverse. So there are years where they are diverse and other years where the calendars aren't so diverse."

Richter presented these facts to the NLSD board of trustees at a meeting on May 11, saying the fund had just enough to cover the estimated $450,000 extra funds required for the 2011-2012 school year.

Trustee Roxanne Suhan expressed surprise, saying she thought the calendar discrepancies would wipe the fund out entirely, and Richter informed her it had, until LCSD had made two changes to their own calendar to ensure the fund could cover the shortfall.

The issue had originally been brought to NLSD trustees' attention at a meeting on March 23, when NLSD superintendent Roger Nippard brought it up in his superintendent report.

At the meeting, he said, "I think there are 10 days when they're out and we're in, and there are 14 days when we're in and they're out. In addition to that, we have the early dismissal times."

At the time, there were concerns the variances would mean the fund would not be able to cover the shortfall at all. LCSD had submitted a request to NLSD to revisit their calendar and look for possible ways to eliminate discrepancies.

After debating the issue, NLSD decided that they would "absolutely not" revisit their calendar, mainly because they had, according to Nippard after the meeting, put out the draft of their calendar more than a year and a half ago.

"We had sent it out to parents, staff, whomever, and also to the separate school system," he explained. "We had approved in principle the calendar over a year ago, and then approved the calendar back in November. We had ordered calendars, we had them prepared, they had already gone out for this year. We weren't prepared to revisit it simply because we had been consulting on the calendar and had actually developed and approved it prior to the February request."

At the meeting, associate superintendent Roy Ripkens had objected to the request, saying, "We have a lot of staff from the east who need to book their Christmas flights home literally a year ahead ... So it could be problematic because this calendar has been out since November and people have made plans around it."

NLSD further added it was not their responsibility to ensure the calendars were more closely matched.

Trustee Ruth Snyder said, "We provide the transportation, they're just jumping on the bus with us."

After the meeting, Nippard explained, saying, "Northern Lights is the corporate entity that runs the transportation system. We're responsible, ultimately responsible, but it is a joint transportation system, so we consult with them in terms of setting the budget for both systems, and the director reports to both the superintendent of the Catholic system and myself. There's a transportation committee - we meet when required - that has representatives from both systems on it to deal with issues or matters. So we're the legal entity that runs it but we work very closely with them in terms of how it's operated."

After receiving notification that NLSD would not be revisiting their calendar, LCSD took another look at theirs and changed two dates, ensuring the shortfall, while still large, would still fall within the reserves in the co-operative fund.

According to Bernadette Provost, superintendent for LCSD, the two changes saved approximately $60,000.

She brought these changes to the LCSD meeting on April 27 and said, "We felt that it was fiscally responsible to do that, regardless if the calendars had been approved or whatever. Both of our calendars had been approved. We have a responsibility to use our dollars wisely, so that's why we went back and wanted to work collaboratively.

"A couple moves on their part, a couple moves on our part would have saved $120,000, but that's neither here nor there. We're at where we're at, we're able to cover the shortfall this year, which is very positive."

She added she had already met with Ripkens to ensure similar vast differences in the calendars can be avoided in the future.

In a phone interview on May 19, Provost added, "We had to give a little bit, and that's OK, in terms of what our vision was, but that's what co-operation is all about and that's an important thing to do.

"When you look at the co-operative grant, you want to make sure that you're using the dollars that are allotted there but that you're not overusing them."

According to Nippard, an essential issue with the co-operative grant is a misunderstanding about what exactly the agreement between the school boards and Alberta Education is.

At the meeting on March 23, he explained, "Back when this agreement was put together, there was certainly a different understanding of what the co-operative agreement was for and how it came about."

He expanded on this in an interview with the Nouvelle and said in 2007, the province revised an already existing funding program meant to encourage joint transportation agreements between school boards and then named it the co-operative grant.

"I think what happened is the board saw it some ways as being a new grant when in effect, it wasn't," he said. "We were given two impressions, one that it was a new grant and another that it was to cover variances in the calendar. I don't believe at this point in time that either is correct."

He added the funding was to "assist in running the transportation system, not necessarily to cover variances in the calendar," but in all ways, including subsidizing bus drivers for fuel costs.

The agreement between LCSD and NLSD was the only one in the province in which the co-operation grant was set aside to cover variances.

"In every other joint transportation agreement in the province, it's used to cover anything else. It's the only one in the province that sets money aside to cover variances in the calendar," said Nippard. "In all of the other joint transportations in the province, the transportation board—which would be us — sets the calendar and the other division follows it."

He also said NLSD was not opposed to covering some variances, especially considering their own modified calendar with Family Fridays.

Nippard stated NLSD is interested in revisiting the original agreement, especially since it is, in effect, in violation of the government regulations for the grant.

"Under the student transportation regulation," he explained, "if you're bringing moneys forward in a year, if you have a surplus in transportation, you're not supposed to be charging fees. So the bottom line is that we have an agreement that's in violation of the provincial regulation, and that's one of the issues we're trying to resolve."

For her part, Provost was glad LCSD was able to ensure money in the co-operative fund was able to cover the shortfall next year.

She said the variances were caused, "on both sides, some because of what we do that's unique to our district and some that they do that's unique to their district. That's the beauty of the co-operative grant, that it enables both districts to follow their own vision for their district, and I think that's a good thing."