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Alberta government decimates funding for parent council support organization

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Alberta School Councils' Association members have been critical of UCP government's choices

Some Alberta parents who serve on school councils say the provincial government is trying to circumvent and silence them.

In the past two years, the United Conservative Party government has all but eliminated nearly $650,000 in annual grant funding to the Alberta School Councils' Association (ASCA), which trains and represents volunteers serving on councils.

The cutback comes after the organization's membership criticized government policies, including the proposed new draft curriculum, education funding and how the province has managed COVID-19 in schools.

"Many parents and many of our members are left wondering if it's because of their advocacy positions that the entirety of the association is being penalized," said ASCA president Brandi Rai.

The organization applied for a $170,000 grant this year. The education ministry turned it down, saying the government doesn't fund non-profit groups' operations.

Instead, the government offered ASCA a $15,000 grant to do a project on learning loss during the pandemic. For at least 15 years, government funding had made up the bulk of ASCA's revenue.

Rai isn't sure if the organization will accept the money offered. She said after laying off some staff, ASCA is already stretched thin with its existing work.

"Our organization refuses to be a check box," Rai said.

ASCA has raised membership fees and now charges parents for training courses that were once free.

In August, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange announced the government would spend $1 million to send $500 directly to every school council in Alberta. A news release at the time said it was to help prepare volunteers for the work, and to "strengthen engagement and the parental voice in their schools."

Although councils can spend the money on professional development, Rai said they can't spend it on ASCA membership fees or to attend the annual conference.

Last fall, LaGrange also created a new minister's parent advisory council, composed of 40 volunteers from across the province.

Rai said it shows the minister only wants to hear from hand-picked parents on topics she chooses.

Parents worry school councils will be diminished

Alberta's Education Act requires all public schools have a council.

School councils aren't fundraising groups. Parents involved review the school budget, look at academic results and consult on school goals and policies.

Last year, about 83 per cent of the province's 1,500 school councils were ASCA members. They include public, Catholic and charter schools.

Red Deer parent Wendy Fath has served on her youngest son's school councils for seven years.

She said, at first, most parents don't understand what councils do. She credits ASCA for training thousands of volunteers for the work and organizing networking events.

Fath said the $500 government grant to each council is a "small shiny thing to take away from the big thing that we're losing."

She worries parents won't get adequate training, and will become disengaged and disempowered.

Meagan Parisian, a parent of three and president of the École Barrie Wilson school council in Red Deer, said the government is cherry-picking parents to hear from.

"We don't need a parent advisory committee," Parisian said. "We have ASCA."

LaGrange's press secretary, Katherine Stavropoulos, said ASCA doesn't represent all parents.

"Alberta's government is proud to expand opportunities to engage directly with parents," she said.

Stavropoulos said the advisory council isn't a replacement for ASCA, but a way to reach different parents.

She said the $500 grants reinforce the government's commitment to parent councils.

Rai said the cuts have left ASCA in a "dire" position, but it's not dead yet.

"I think that they anticipated that we would go away," she said.

"But we've been here for 90 years, and if we need to look different for a few years while we rally, and regroup, we will. But we will be here long past this sitting government."


Janet French is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has also worked at the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca

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