Most Albertans understand the difficulty of living in uncertain economic times.
It’s time that Alberta’s teachers, school boards and the provincial government reached the same awareness. A solution to the impending crisis in education is needed that addresses both the long-term needs of students and the inherent difficulty of delivering services in a fragile economy.
At the heart of the looming crisis in education is the Alberta Teachers Association’s insistence that its members receive the wage increase of 5.99 per cent that they believe they are due. The province intends to pay 4.82 per cent instead (the difference is about $23 million, roughly what it would take to pay 230 more teachers for a year, with benefits). The dispute rests on a change in the formula that Statistics Canada uses to determine the Alberta average weekly earnings index (never mind that the formula determines an average, not a median, so is naturally skewed by high-end wage increases that don’t reflect the average Albertan’s income). The teachers want their increase based on the new formula; the province is insistent that the old formula applies.
The issue has prompted union grievances and will likely end up in court, at very least in a test case. More money, both from the public coffers and from the ATA, will be spent on legal fees.
But we’ll be no closer to addressing the fundamental problem: Albertans don’t want the quality of the education delivered to their children to be compromised, even in the short term, by economic grandstanding.
Many Albertans have lost jobs or suffered a loss in income, have mounting debts or are uncertain about their financial futures. They have dipped into savings, deferred purchases and remortgaged their homes, or sold homes at a loss.
Many more Albertans have received no wage increases this year.
School boards have faced similar demons: growing costs coupled with diminishing resources mean that trustees in all 62 of Alberta’s school divisions must dip into reserves to make ends meet. And at the end of August, the province withdrew $80 million in education funding to the school divisions and told the various boards to pull $44 million out of their own surpluses to help cover the difference. Millions more in provincial funding is expected to disappear next year. In many cases, those school district surpluses will be seriously depleted; in many cases, those surpluses were intended to pay for infrastructure and technological advances that the province failed to fund adequately.
The boards can’t set their own budget priorities. They have lost autonomy to a provincial government that dictates how much teachers will be paid and how surpluses will be used. In essence, the province expects the boards to demonstrate better fiscal acumen than the province can muster.
In the middle are the teachers. They face growing public and government pressure over their wage expectations; the inevitability of larger class sizes and parental discontent over their ability to reach every child in those circumstances; and fewer quality teaching resources.
At a critical juncture in this province’s development, as education should be an even greater priority (post-secondary schools across Alberta must cope with significant enrolment increases as the job market shrinks), we have created a dangerous climate. To escape the energy industry’s boom-and-bust cycle, we must become better educated and our economy must diversify — and it won’t happen if we don’t get smarter.
Penalizing the education system in such a climate is a nightmarish choice.
The provincial government’s oil and gas-related revenues have deflated significantly, wiping out budget forecasts and forcing the ruling Conservatives to re-examine spending in a number of areas.
Never mind Premier Ed Stelmach’s early-year promises to buffer the economy by boosting infrastructure spending, and how empty such a strategy is if you just retract public spending elsewhere. Robbing Peter to pay Paul doesn’t advance the economy.
Not surprisingly, the province’s inability to fulfil promises is fully in the spotlight now. The glare caused by cuts in education, health care and other service areas must be almost too much.
In times of uncertainty, we expect leadership and vision. This mess demonstrates neither.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.