Dig deep to pay for schools

The province will be making announcements about new school projects in the next few days, Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk told Alberta teachers at a pre-election forum Saturday.

He added a new method of paying for the approximately 400 new schools needed to house the province's exploding student population over the next decade is also in the works.

"Under the current financial model of paying cash, we only get to build a fraction of the schools that we need to build," Lukaszuk said during an all-party event sponsored by the Alberta Teachers' Association at Barnett House, the ATA's headquarters.

Lukaszuk said only five to seven new schools can be built annually under the current education budget, which itself is increasing by about 3.5 per cent every year. The Treasury Board and Alberta Education are considering various ways to raise money.

But talk of borrowing money to build schools didn't go down well with Vitor Marciano, a Senate candidate representing the Wildrose party at the forum.

"The fact we should go back into debt to build schools belies the fact that in many ways we are the richest jurisdiction in the world, and if we were able to properly manage our affairs there should be enough money to build an appropriate number of schools."

Marciano said the Tories hold out "the promise of a school" to garner support with voters, and he said a Wildrose government would establish a formula for school approvals.

"Building decisions are hideously politicized in this province. No cabinet or political party should decide whether your kids need a school," Marciano said.

But Lukaszuk said later, "The largest number of schools now being built are in Airdrie, which is a Wildrose constituency. There are only three criteria that we go on, enrolment, capacity of the area, structural soundness of the existing schools, and health and safety."

And he slammed the Wildrose party's aversion to borrowing.

"If you are going to build that many new schools with the current budget (without additional funding), that means some other programs are going to go away," he said.

"I don't believe in this false type of mathematics, I believe in being open. We will be looking at a variety of vehicles, either external or internal, to make sure kids today get the schools they need."

Edmonton-Strathcona NDP MLA Rachel Notley said decisions about where to build new schools must be "entirely transparent," and recent stories about possible political interference in the process "makes Albertans lack trust in the process."

Earlier this month, northern Alberta Progressive Conservative MLA Hector Goudreau had to resign as chairman of a government committee after a letter he wrote to the Holy Family Catholic School District indicating criticism of the government could cost the board a new school was made public.

Notley also said using the public private partnership (P3) model for building new schools "is a failed model that can't accommodate a changing community."

A spring election is expected to be called as early as next week, sending voters to the polls in late April. Saturday's all-party forum highlighted a potential lightning rod for teachers and three of the official opposition party representatives: Private schools funded by the province.

Alberta gives 70 per cent of the base student funding to such schools compared with 100 per cent for public schools.

"Public tax dollars must be for public education," said Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman to applause, who added the province gives those schools $192 million a year.

" 'Choice' is code for privatization, the same as in health care," he said.

Lukaszuk insisted that public schools are superior to private schools, which is why 95 per cent of parents send their kids to public schools.

"Our public education system is superior to any private education offered anywhere in the world, and parents know that," he said.

"Private schools make public education look good."

The comments appalled the Alberta Party's Sue Huff, who wondered why the province was funding private schools if they were inferior.

"I am stunned a minister of education would say it is OK for some parents to choose crappy education for their children."

Lukaszuk insisted the parents who send their kids to private schools also pay property taxes so deserve some education support.

Marciano agreed with Lukaszuk: "We think this is an issue of choice. Private and public are different, I am not going to say one is superior than the other, and for the small number of parents who send their kids to the private system, that keeps pressure on the public system to keep it excellent."

Edmonton Journal, Sun Mar 18 2012
Byline: Dave Cooper

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