The quirks of a new funding model designed to put financing for aboriginal schools in British Columbia on par with provincially run schools mean a handful of reserves will face deep cuts – one as high as 45 per cent.
Andreas Rohrbach, principal of the Aatse Davie School on Kwadacha First Nations, about 500 kilometres north of Prince George, B.C., said he is expecting his school's budget to be cut to $1.4-million from $2.5-million under a new arrangement among B.C. first-nations schools, the province and the federal government.
The cuts mean Mr. Rohrbach will have to lay off staff, including three of his eight teachers, scrap sports programs and cut field trips for his students, 80 in total, over the next three years.
A budget cut of 45 per cent is "cutting us off at the knees," he said.
The decrease comes at time when Ottawa is reconsidering the way it finances aboriginal education. The gap between funding for reserve schools and provincial schools has been growing, and a scathing report from a federally appointed panel noted B.C.'s new arrangement as a success story.
It topped up funding with $15-million and amounted to a boost for an estimated 80 per cent of B.C.'s reserve schools that brings them in step with their provincial counterparts. But for some schools, especially those with large adult education programs, those operating below building capacity, and those registered as independent schools, the math didn't work out.
Aatse Davie has been a federally financed independent school since 1997. For most of that time, it has received block funding based on the amount given to its nearest provincial neighbour, Stikine School District.
Mr. Rohrbach said the arrangement helped Aatse Davie make great strides. Between 1996 and 2006, just one person graduated from high school. In the years since the school became independent, 16 have graduated through a strategy built partly on recruiting and retaining high-quality staff.
"Why penalize us now when we were getting somewhere?" said Mr. Rohrbach, who has been the school's principal since 1999.
He volunteered his time to be on the board of directors of the First Nations Education Steering Committee, the group that negotiated the new deal with the federal government.
He still supports FNESC, which is widely regarded as a success and a leading model for aboriginal education. But for smaller, more remote schools such as Mr. Rohrbach's – especially the federally funded independent schools – the new model is a step back.
Jehan Casey, a spokeswoman for aboriginal affairs in B.C., said that the decrease had to do with the fact that FNESC was taking over some of the school's administrative support roles.
"A significant reason that the Kwadacha First Nations schools will get a decreased allocation is because of the fact that they are no longer the responsible group for providing these support services," she said.
Debbie Jeffrey, executive director of FNESC, said a grace period built into the FNESC agreement will protect Aatse Davie and keep funding at its current level for three more years. Longer term, she said, some details of the funding model haven't been finalized and there could still be more money.
"We are just going to have to continue negotiating," she said. "We'll do the best we can."