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Education minister gets a lecture

The upcoming provincial budget and stalled teacher negotiations are weighing heavily on the minds of some Central Alberta education leaders who met with Education Minister Jeff Johnson on Monday.

Johnson crisscrossed the region to meet with school boards and hear about what was going on in their districts. Before heading into a meeting with Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools, Johnson said he spoke with some school boards that were wondering about teachers’ negotiations. He’s pitching a new four-year provincial deal instead of having each school board iron out contracts with union locals.

“We’ve been working on this for two and a half years now, so it’s getting frustrating,” said Johnson. “We’re hoping this one will hit the mark.”

School boards are also concerned with the March 7 budget, particularly when it’s expected to be hard-hitting on big ticket items like education and health care. Capital projects are of special concern for boards experiencing growth, such as in Red Deer.

“We have to look at creative ways to finance schools because we need to create more spaces for kids,” said Johnson.

Guy Pelletier, vice-chair of Red Deer Catholic, said they addressed two areas of concern — the district’s capital plan and inclusive education. “We’re hoping on securing the ministry’s support for a new high school,” said Pelletier. “The land we have identified for it would be in the northeast quadrant, north of the Clearview area, so the land could be made available by 2015.”

Instead of delivering education through special needs programming, school districts are now delivering programs that all children can be a part of, where appropriate.

“That’s been a bit of a budget challenge for us,” said Pelletier. “There’s been a change in the formula for how that kind of programming is delivered. It sounds like he and his colleagues are looking at ways to help support divisions with less dollars because of the new formula.”

Despite a wide range of concerns, Johnson said he heard a lot of fantastic stories about the kinds of programs that are being run and some of the great partnerships involving community groups and post-secondary institutions.

“So it’s really encouraging,” he said.

Wild Rose Public Schools chairwoman Nancy McClure said they didn’t focus on the financial challenges, which she described as a given across the province. Instead, they talked about the successes in the district, which includes schools in Rocky Mountain House and Caroline.

“We talked about a lot of our work we’re doing with professional development, our First Nations students, our community,” McClure said. “I’m excited we have a minister who is willing to hear from us about our successes and challenges and be willing to speak openly and candidly with us. It’s very refreshing.”



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