Alberta Politics

Grown-up conversations key to solving Alberta’s crowded schools problem.

Premier Jim Prentice Alberta Leadership Race Vote
Jim Prentice scrums with the media after his victory speech on September 6, 2014.

The de-Redfordization process continues this week, as Progressive Conservative Party leader Jim Prentice tries to sweep the memory of Alison Redford from of the minds of Alberta voters.

On Monday, Mr. Prentice promised the construction of four mini “starter-schools” in Calgary to provide relief to overflowing suburban schools. While the new mini-schools are a good temporary solution, it was almost comical to hear another government promise to build schools. During Ms. Redford’s time as premier, promises of new schools were announced, renounced and then renounced again.

And despite delays even then, Education Minister Jeff Johnson offered a “Rock of Gibraltar solid guarantee that 50 new schools and 70 building renovations would be ready by 2016. Mr. Johnson’s “rock,” which had a been a key promise in the 2012 PC Party election platform, has since crumbled (and Mr. Johnson is now the Minister of Seniors).

The starter-schools are a good short-term solution, but they will not solve the larger issue: the provincial government’s relationship with school boards and municipal governments.

The root of the crowded school problem is that municipalities, school boards and the provincial government do a poor job communicating and coordinating growth. As zoning has allowed for suburban sprawl in our cities, cash-strapped school boards have scrambled to respond to a massive spike in student population on the outskirts of our municipalities.

Dependent on provincial funding, schools boards have abandoned already existing (and now underused) infrastructure in central neighbourhoods to focus on building, staffing and maintaining new schools around the city’s edge.

Long-term infrastructure planning in our education system was severely lacking for many years as the provincial leadership recklessly focused on the ideological goal of debt-repayment at any cost (it turns out, it actually cost more in the long-term).

But this is unlikely to change, because provincial politicians enjoy the political cover that schools board trustees provide.

When unpopular decisions need to be made, like closing schools or cancelling programs, then the provincial politicians are more than happy to let the school board trustees take the blame. And when new schools are opened, MLAs and cabinet ministers are eager to cut ribbons and pose for photos.

In a well-articulated blog post, Edmonton mayor Don Iveson explained why it is time for a grown-up conversation between the provincial government and Alberta’s big cities.

“We need to have a grown-up conversation that acknowledges the complex and sophisticated work we are already doing as a local government, and then we need to be crystal clear about the work local governments do on behalf of the province and the country,” Mr. Iveson wrote.

While Mr. Iveson’s comments refer specifically to municipalities, the need for these grown-up conversations also applies to the school boards responsible for administering our education system (I will have more to say about municipalities and Big City Charters in an upcoming column).

If Mr. Prentice is serious about truly breaking from the past and proving his party is better than Mr. Redford, he should start by having some meaningful grown-up conversations with municipal and school board leaders in our province.

3 replies on “Grown-up conversations key to solving Alberta’s crowded schools problem.”

We’re going to have to focus on some cost-sharing in and around Edmonton. It will be complicated but the surrounding municipalities and Edmonton are going to have to figure out a way to share combined industrial and residential tax base. We have to stop competing against one another and start working with one common goal for the future. Shared wealth, shared responsibility.

The thing about schools sitting empty, and some needing to be closed while certainly true, this school shortfall isn’t due to a shifting further out of the family ring as was the case in the mid 2000s. The student population is more than 20 years ahead of demographic projections made for the 2008 Capital Plan because people moving to Alberta have been younger and more numerous.

When the province is having trouble finding bidders for 10 or 20 schools, 60 or 80 is going to be a challenge.

Schools will be fine. We have Cenovus Energy, Suncor Energy, Stantec, PCL Industrial Contractors and Syncrude Canada in the classroom now. Life couldn’t be better. Have an ipad raise kids and oil companies deciding what they learn. Just because we are the richest province in Canada doesn’t mean we have to have good education for the next generation.

Education in Alberta is a joke. It is always one of the first things cut and often very undervalued in terms of long term economic growth of a nation for short term needs.

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