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.