College, school districts anxious to work with NDP

Things seem a little brighter on the education front in Central Alberta with an NDP government in the wings.

Things seem a little brighter on the education front in Central Alberta with an NDP government in the wings.

The party, about to form the next majority government in Alberta under the leadership of Rachel Notley, placed education funding as a priority during the election campaign.

Joel Ward, Red Deer College president, said on Wednesday that he was very pleased that the New Democratic Party had promised to restore post-secondary funding that had been cut.

As well, while the former Progressive Conservative government had suggested they might remove tuition caps in 2016-17, the NDP talked about a freeze on tuition and fees.

“That is of great interest to us and to our students.”

However the PCs’ freeze on salaries is a different approach than the NDPs when it comes to collective agreements, and this will affect the college financially, he said.

But Ward suspects the PC plan to cut funding up to 2.7 per cent next year is going to change. “The NDP has said they are interested in providing predictable, stable funding and that’s important for us as we do our long-term plan.

“For post-secondary education, I’m very much enthusiastic about what I’ve heard from the NDP and what their passions are about education, and we at Red Deer College are willing and able and anxious to sit down with them,” Ward said.

“We believe there have been cuts that have really impaired our ability to serve our learners over the last number of years and this is a fresh government looking at new ideas and we’re very much interested in … finding ways to work together and to make their promises a reality.”

For the 2015-15 school year, the college has prepared a balanced budget based on a 1.4 per cent reduction in funding.

“Our current premier-elect is thoughtful and articulate and bright. She will take her time. She will get the best advice and she will make the right decisions as she sees fit, but I don’t believe they have the capacity to make the change that will affect Red Deer College by tomorrow,” said Ward.

Bev Manning, chairperson for Red Deer Public School District, said she thinks the new government will be a positive thing.

“We need to maintain our local autonomy and the ability of boards to make those decisions locally. We understand that there’s some difficult financial decisions to be made both provincially and locally.

“All we were asking for all along was to not tie our hands to be able to respond to the decrease in funding. We felt the budget that the (Progressive Conservatives) were bringing forward just really put us in a straitjackets as far as what we could do.

“If the purse strings are opened a little bit, that’s great. I think my message currently is we’re going to stay the course. We’re going to see what the next few weeks and months bring, and we’re going to work not only with the government but also with our community to make the best possible decisions in a time of restraint.

“I felt that under the PC government we’ve really struggled to be able to maintain the power to make the decisions that our local electorates asked us to make. We are the people in our community who understand what Red Deer people want … the PC government was very good at changing the rules in the middle of the game and being very reactionary to certain situations and I would rather be proactive, make the plans, stick with the plans. Yeah, you may have to adjust the plans, but don’t change the rules on us.

“Hopefully, the NDP government will come forth with a good plan and we’ll be able to stick to it,” said Manning.

One of the concerns school boards across the province had with the PC budget, introduced just before the election was called, was there would be no new funding for teachers and other resources needed to deal with 12,000 new students expected next year.

Chinook’s Edge School Division board chairperson Colleen Butler said the NDP promise to correct this makes her optimistic.

As well, the PCs planned a three per cent reduction in the non-teaching aspect of schools’ budgets and that would have affected things like facilities maintenance, teacher aides, transportation and inclusion.

“All of those things were going to be very hard hit,” Butler said.

Chinook is expecting about 128 new students next year, which should have meant at least $800,000 in new grant funding from the province. But the PC budget had no funding for new school enrolment.

“What do you do with them? You can’t put teachers in front of them. You can’t put them in a classroom because there’s no teacher because you can’t fund them.

“So then your class sizes go up and you can’t afford the support as in the teacher aides, the inclusion portions, all of that, all of that was in jeopardy.

“We just felt that this (PC) government really didn’t understand the rural perspective that we deal with,” Butler said.

The school district is hoping the NDP will fund education in a sustainable and predictable way.

“As school boards we have been asking for this for years … so we know what’s coming and can plan around it. … You can’t just throw out 12,000 kids and say ‘Well here you go but we’re not going to fund them. You figure it out.’ ”

“We’re very optimistic that we will be able to work well with this new government,” Butler said.

barr@bprda.wpengine.com

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