New schools are welcome; funding needed for more teachers, says ATA president
It’s good news that the provincial government under Premier Jim Prentice is pledging to spend $2 billion on 55 new schools and 20 modernizations, says Alberta Teachers’ Association president Mark Ramsankar, but the province must commit to stable, long-term funding so that school boards feel confident that they can hire teachers in the numbers necessary to make these schools fully functional.
The province added 21,000 new students (about 3.3 per cent) last year and has projected to add about 18,000 (3 per cent) this year. The number of teachers, however, isn’t keeping pace with this growth, with just 100 more teachers in place in 2013-14 compared to 2009, Ramsankar says.
“I’m happy to hear that the government is committed to building new schools, because they’re badly needed,” he said, “but we are also going to need teachers in those facilities.”
Prentice made the school announcement Oct. 8 alongside Education Minister Gordon Dirks and Infrastructure Minister Manmeet Bhullar.
The announcement, billed as phase three, included a pledge of $43.2 million for school boards to start planning for 55 new schools and 20 modernizations. It’s estimated that these schools would be complete in 2020. The province also allocated $100 million to expedite maintenance projects.
“We need to be going where the demand is going to be. And we need to be accountable to the commitments that are made,” Prentice said.
The plan includes two previous announcements by Prentice’s predecessors. Announced by Ed Stelmach in 2011, phase one includes 35 new facilities (31 of which have been built so far). Phase two, pledged by Alison Redford during the 2012 election campaign, involves 50 new schools and 70 modernizations. These are expected to open in 2017.
The last provincial budget, released in the spring, included funding to ensure that per-pupil spending would be available for an anticipated 19,000 new students. It also included mitigation funding so school boards that experience declining enrolment wouldn’t face an overall funding cut. Grant rates for the class size initiative (for K–3 and high school CTS classes) and for per-pupil inclusive education rates got a two per cent increase.
All other grants for school boards were frozen at the 2012-13 level, meaning that the largest grants have remained the same for three years, Ramsankar said.
“With teacher salaries set in place for three years, any increase in funding could have been directed entirely to improving student learning conditions by ensuring that we have the right number of teachers in place,” Ramsankar said.
Ramsankar says that unpredictable funding rates followed by grant rate freezes over the past few years have resulted in a deficiency in the number of teaching positions being created given the rapid influx of new students.
It is not yet known exactly how many teaching positions were created across the province this fall, but Ramsankar suggests that the province may be short by as many as 4,000 positions compared to where it needs to be to maintain the classroom conditions that were in place five years ago.
“Our teachers are incredibly concerned about both learning conditions and intensifying workload — the continuing increase in class sizes over the past few years is a big part of that concern,” Ramsankar said.
Implementing a plan for long-term, predictable and stable funding is part of the minister’s mandate, as issued in a letter by Prentice, said Kathleen Range, press secretary for Alberta Education.
She stressed that the province is continuing to provide base funding on a per-student basis.
“Funding will continue to be an ongoing issue. We know we’re building a number of schools. We know we need to have teachers to be able to fill them. We do commit to providing that base funding for every student that’s enrolled. We know that we will continue to do that.”
She added that the minister is committed to working collaboratively with the ATA.
“We know that we need to work together in order to achieve the items that were identified in the premier’s mandate to the education minister,” Range said.
“We’re all here for the benefit of students and ensuring that we maintain the world class education system that we have. Teachers are obviously integral to that. We know that we need to continue to support them in their role.”
The government announcement on school buildings drew strong criticism from opposition MLAs, who described it as a move to curry votes while there are four byelections taking place in the province.
“Someone needs to question [that] this is an announcement made during a byelection when the premier and the minister of education do not have seats,” NDP education critic Daren Bilous told the Edmonton Journal. “So it’s a convenient time to announce a whole bunch of new schools when they’re trying to curry votes.” ❚