EDMONTON — Alberta’s school construction policy has lapsed into “fields of shattered dreams” and needs a complete rethink, Tory leadership candidate Thomas Lukaszuk said Thursday.
Lukaszuk promised new, “smarter” plans to work with private developers to get the schools built for the hundreds of thousands of recent newcomers to the province.
That includes making sure that a school is the first thing built in any new housing subdivision, he said.
The province, under former premier Alison Redford, promised more than two years ago to build 50 new schools by 2016.
The locations of the schools have been announced, signs announcing the construction have been put in the ground, but to date, construction has yet to begin on even one of them.
Lukaszuk said that approach isn’t working.
“Governments have the tradition of promising a school will be built one day on an empty field, and we know that up to 70 per cent of the time that simply never happens,” said Lukaszuk.
“Those are fields of shattered dreams. Kids grow up, families move out, and schools are still not built.”
He also said the province has to look at making schools more community-oriented, with external entrances so that the school’s educational resources and gyms can be used after hours.
“Those schools then become community hubs,” he said.
“Once the population, the demographic, of the neighbourhood shifts 20, 30, 40 years down the road, even though the school may no longer be needed, the hub is still a very important asset for the community.”
Lukaszuk made the comments at a north end park, where he announced his infrastructure platform.
He is one of three candidates vying to become the next PC party leader and premier. Voting is to take place in September.
Infrastructure spending, particularly on schools, has been a key element of the campaign.
Candidate Jim Prentice has said he will revisit financing and resources to get the 50 schools built as soon as possible. He also said he will build 40 to 50 more if needed.
Candidate Ric McIver says while he was Infrastructure minister, he had a plan to partner with the private sector to get the schools built and that the goal of 50 by 2016 was still viable while he was in charge.
McIver stepped down from the job in May to run for the leadership.
The new Infrastructure Minister, Wayne Drysdale, has since said that 19 of the 50 schools will not be built by 2016 because the funding model with private developers was more expensive than if the province just paid the whole cost by itself.
McIver has also criticized Prentice for promising the extra schools on top of the 50 already committed.
McIver said Prentice is a “candy man” for making expensive and elaborate promises without being able to see if such costs can reasonably be borne.
Lukaszuk declined Tuesday to be pinned down on hard numbers of schools to be built.
He said those numbers tend to be “political” and lead to unrealistic expectations.
“I will not enter into that game,” he said. “We have to promise Albertans that we will build as many schools as we possibly can.
“I know that the private sector is ready and willing to step up.”
He also promised to continue the government’s current plan to take on debt to pay for infrastructure.
The debt is expected to hit $21 billion by 2017.
He said with 100,000 people arriving in Alberta each year, the province can’t wait for the cash in hand to construct care centres, roads, hospitals, and schools.
He wouldn’t commit to a defined repayment plan, saying he needs flexibility to deal with costs and priorities as they emerge.
But he said he would not borrow to pay for Alberta’s day-to-day operational spending.