Imbalance in FNMI student funding

Federal government support for First Nations students attending Ponoka schools falls behind what province provides

The system used to provide education funds for most First Nations students seems to be missing the mark.

Presently, both Wolf Creek Public Schools (WCPS) and St. Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic School Division (STAR) receive two sources of funding federal and provincial for FNMI (First Nation, Métis, Inuit) students.

The federal government provides annual per-student funding for on-reserve students, based upon cost per student from the previous fiscal year.

Off-reserve students that self-declare as First Nations are funded by Alberta Education with operational funding of about $11,000 per student the same amount all school divisions receive for the majority of their students.

The money for the federally funded students comes through Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). However, the cost-based model from INAC leaves little for extra programming or other needs to be met without having to find other funding. For example, the bill for local public school education sent to INAC will be around $9,000 while the local Catholic division will invoice INAC for a little less than half that amount.

The cost-base model also fails to address the costs for the current year.

The agreement with WCPS also sees the federal government invoiced annually, with certain expenses being exempted such as transportation plus institutional and inclusive education programs. These items, and with some other fees, are either funded through grant requests or by parties such as the First Nation or parents. Those expenses are reviewed by INAC and paid based on the division’s audited financial statements.

“The total expenditures, reduced by all of the exemptions, is then divided by the total student number to come up with the cost per student. The federal government then pays us based on this number, times the total approved reserve students that were in our schools for the year,” stated WCPS superintendent Jayson Lovell.

Figuring the funding

The WCPS 2015-16 financial statements were just recently audited with the projected cost per student right around $9,140, according to Lovell.

“With that, our total revenue for the year based on that approved rate, which we are submitting to INAC will be $2,587,592 for 283 students,” he said.

“Reserve students are funded based on what we spend. First Nations students living off-reserve and in our schools by the Sept. 30 count date are considered provincial students and qualify for all provincial funding that is applicable.”

As for where the money is used, Lovell explained WCPS directs all funds into a general pool with it placed according to the division’s priorities.

“The allocations that we do are based on need and this would include teacher support, educational assistant support, support for male and female elders, cultural support that includes resources and operational allocations,” he said.

“This model ensures funds can be directed specifically to support the goals and targets outlined in Wolf Creek’s Three-Year Education Plan, which is completely aligned with Alberta Education’s expectations. A needs-based model also ensures schools are all funded equitably with the staffing, resources and operational budgets necessary to deliver the best educational programming.”

Lovell added this particular model also prevents a system of ‘have and have not’ schools with the model reviewed and modified annually.

Currently, WCPS has a First Nations Success program that has funding provided to support all First Nations students to go along with school social workers and a First Nations cultural advisor that works in all three Ponoka schools.

STAR Catholic funding model

Over at STAR, it also receives INAC funds for on-reserve students and the per-student provincial funding for any off-reserve ‘self-declared’ First Nations student.

For 2015-16, STAR’s cost per student worked out to $4,348 per student for 57 students a number the division stated has yet to be verified by INAC. STAR allocates funds in a different way, with the money going to the school the student is attending.

“We do have some on-reserve students, but not that many and they are mainly in Ponoka and Wetaskiwin,” explained STAR assistant superintendent Kevin Booth.

“The federal grant turns out to be less than the per-student funds provided by the province. So, that money goes to the school for their budget because the school depends on that money to provide staff and other services. It’s a bit of a hardship because the funding is below our actual cost.”

Booth added they do receive an additional provincial grant of just under $1,200 per student that ‘self-declares’ and is off-reserve plus access to other provincial FNMI grants, which provides some help.

“Something that also helps is the relationship we have built with one of the school authorities at Maskwacis,” Booth stated.

“It’s mostly for sharing and collaborating on professional development, though we do a lot with them and that helps us learn more about how to instruct and teach First Nations students while also helping us get more bang for our buck.”