Fort McMurray school divisions struggling through staff shortages, crowded classrooms

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Fort McMurray’s public and Catholic school leaders say they face a massive shortage of teachers and educational assistants, and both divisions say they either need a new school, expansions or portables to deal with surging enrolment.

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Much of this swelling student growth is at the high school level, although every grade is reporting crowded classrooms. Annalee Nutter, superintendent of the Fort McMurray Public School Division (FMPSD), knows of at least one Grade 7 class with around 40 students.

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“We want to be hopeful, but people are starting to move back east and they are finding jobs there as teachers. The salary is no longer competitive,” said Nutter. “More money is great, but it doesn’t help when we don’t have enough staff. This is Canada-wide.”

Nutter it was once easy to lure teachers from across Canada with lucrative salaries and benefits, but other regions are now just as competitive for teachers and educational staff.

Natasha MacArthur-Poole, superintendent of Fort McMurray Catholic School Division (FMCSD), is hopeful Keyano College’s education program will continue to help fill shortages, but each hiring period is a challenge for FMCSD.

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She said the division was fully staffed at the start of the 2023-24 academic year. Maternity leave, sick leave and other personal circumstances have left FMCSD short-staffed and struggling to find replacements.

“Fort McMurray isn’t always a place where people want to come to be to start their teaching career, which has made finding teachers always a challenge,” said MacArthur-Poole. “Now all school divisions know the difficulties we’ve faced.”

This shortfall comes as both divisions experience massive growth in student enrolment. FMPSD has reported a 7.5 per cent growth, including a 21 per cent increase in students with complex or special needs.

Nutter says the division is advocating for the construction of a new school or expansions of current schools. The division is also trying to get funding for portables to deal with their growing student numbers. MacArthur-Poole said portables are needed at Holy Trinity High School, as well as the K-6 schools St. Kateri and Our Lady of the Rivers. There is a three-year waiting list for portables.

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There are school divisions that have been waiting way longer than we have for portables and new schools, so I’m not even sure where we are in the in the queue,” said MacArthur-Poole.

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Holy Trinity Catholic High School in Timberlea in Fort McMurray on Saturday, October 3, 2020. Laura Beamish/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

None of Fort McMurray’s schools have reached capacity levels that would justify the construction of a new school, but Catholic and public school leaders say they are approaching quickly those thresholds.

The Alberta government has promised to fund an expansion and modernization of Westwood Community High School, although Nutter is still waiting to hear details. MacArthur-Poole says there is no indication her request for portables, expansions or new schools will be fast-tracked.

Alberta’s current capital plan for schools does not include funding for a new school in Fort McMurray, but includes funding for preliminary designs for replacing Conseil scolaire Centre-Nord’s Ecole Boreale with a new K-12 school.

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Province knows about Fort McMurray’s growth: Yao

Alberta Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides said building more schools and staffing them are major priorities for the province, even as calls continued to come for the province to rethink its entire K-12 funding model.

Nicolaides said in a December interview “a lot of good things were set in motion” in 2023, including an overall 5.5 per cent boost to K-12 schools in February’s budget to help tackle student population growth. 

However, he confirmed he’s not considering scrapping Alberta’s weighted moving average funding formula. He is confident grants like the $30 million announced in late November will help fill funding gaps for fast-growing school divisions.

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Tany Yao, UCP MLA for Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo, agrees FMCSD and FMPSD needs new and updates schools. He is also concerned with how difficult it has been to hire new staff in many workplaces these days, including schools.

“We’re advocates for our communities and I’m very aware of our schools’ needs. We have a need for a few new schools in our region for sure,” said Yao. “The stresses are definitely in other communities more than ours, but that doesn’t mean that we should be excluded from any schools. These talks are happening.”

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