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Fiscal woes prompt province to push back schools

Alberta Education’s postponement of future capital school projects because of a bleak fiscal outlook is raising both alarm and understanding among Central Alberta education leaders.

Education Minister Jeff Johnson and Brad Vonkeman, president of the Alberta School Councils’ Association, hosted a teleconference call with parents of school councils on Tuesday.

Due to projected lower revenues, Johnson said the Progressive Conservative government’s promise to build 50 new schools and renovate 70 more in the next four years is being pushed back. The Tories are still committed to this promise, but the projects may take a year or two longer, said Johnson.

Close to 70 projects are either just being completed, underway or being tendered out to the tune of close to $1 billion, so with the future project numbers, this is very ambitious, he added.

More details are expected to come after the provincial budget is delivered on March 7.

“We recognize there are significant pressures out there,” said Johnson.

Vonkeman, of Red Deer, said a lot of schools are full beyond capacity and with plans to build or modernize now stretched over six years, instead of four, he’s not sure how this will impact them.

He said he’s aware that more schools could be used, particularly in southeast Red Deer and in some other communities.

“We’re fortunate that right now we do have schools being built in Central Alberta,” Vonkeman added.

Red Deer Public School District chairman Lawrence Lee said he recognizes the province’s tougher financial situation for construction projects.

“I think we have some really big concerns with the upcoming budget because we were really looking forward to predictable funding on a three-year cycle.”

Kurt Sacher, superintendent of Chinook’s Edge School Division, said the district’s biggest concern is whether its next top capital priority, a kindergarten to Grade 8 public school in Sylvan Lake, will be approved in the near future.

“It would be our No. 1 question to the minister,” said Sacher.

Brian Celli, superintendent of Wild Rose Public Schools, said the department has treated the division fairly with school construction and modernization, but there are always things that need to be done. David Thompson High School, a 50-plus-year-old school located between Condor and Leslieville, is one that needs upgrading, so delays for that would be a little disappointing, he added.

“We’re hoping that something would get done at David Thompson, even if they said in the next two years, that would have been good, too,” said Celli.

Adriana LaGrange, chair of Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools, declined comment until further review.

Questions were also raised about kindergarten funding — the province is currently paying 50 per cent of full-day kindergarten costs, or for half a day per student.

Johnson said he supports fully funding full-day kindergarten, but it needs to be part of an early childhood strategy being developed. That would stretch across several departments, including Health and Wellness. Schools have taken the initiative to launch full-day kindergarten, targeting it mainly at those children who need the extra help.

Johnson said Alberta won’t be able to push the initiative forward in the next budget year, but it’s hoped it will happen as soon as possible.

“We want to roll it out and we’re not sure how it’s going to look or how it’s going to cost,” he said.

Eleven per cent of Alberta kindergarten students are there for the full day, and it’s hoped the percentage would be more, said Vonkeman.

“Under the fiscal restraints, we can understand it to some degree, but we still want (the province) to follow through on that promise in the near future.”

Fully funding full-day kindergarten has been on the books for about 10 years, since an Alberta Commission on Learning report, so this latest government news is a little disappointing, said Celli.

Wild Rose Schools and Saint Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic Schools announced on Thursday the continuation of full-day kindergarten programming in Drayton Valley. Parents pay $250 per month to help with costs.

“We don’t have the cash to fund them on our own,” said Celli. “We still offer the traditional half-time kindergarten at no cost.”

Lee said they’d like to see more spaces for the elementary school level, not just for kindergarten.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Lee about delays in full-day kindergarten. “A lot of jurisdictions would question whether or not to move to full-day kindergarten.”

Chinook’s Edge has never advocated for full-day, everyday kindergarten because it doesn’t have the infrastructure. Every space is being used and in fact, more classroom space is needed, said Sacher.

There’s research out there too questioning whether it’s needed every day, he added.

“Some of our kindergarten students are, in the worst case scenario, on the bus for up to an hour one way,” Sacher said. “It makes for a very long day.”



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