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Alberta Education Minister Dave Hancock is telling boards not to lay off teachers. (CBC)

Education Minister Dave Hancock is calling on Alberta's largest school boards to hold off on plans to lay off hundreds of teachers.

"My advice is don't lay off teachers. We're going to need them," he said. "We've put an awful lot of time and effort on the class-size policy. We've put a lot of extra resources into class-size policy and it doesn't make sense to go off that for a short-term blip.

"We've had a tough fiscal time and our budgets were constrained. We're going to manage that over the longer term."

Hancock met Wednesday with board chairs and superintendents of the Catholic and public school boards in Edmonton and Calgary. He told them they should dip into their reserve funds or carry a debt to avoid teacher layoffs.

Wednesday's meeting ended with no resolution.

"I wasn't about today to try and convince anybody of anything," Hancock said. "It's about information sharing, about understanding where everybody is and having clarity in terms of what we're talking about."

400 teaching jobs on the line

Calgary's public school board expects to cut 200 teaching positions. The Calgary Catholic School District has 85 positions on the chopping block. Edmonton Catholic Schools doesn't yet have a number as its budget won't be released until the end of the month..

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Don Fleming from the Edmonton Public School Board met with Hancock on Wednesday. (CBC)

Edmonton Public Schools has determined it will have to lay off 119 teachers — even after it uses $22.3 million of a $34-million reserve fund to cover a salary increase for teachers. 

The $823 million 2010-2011 budget is $12 million less than the previous year's budget.

"If we were to try to maintain staffing levels at the present level, we would have had to use up all of our reserves which would have then put us in a deficit situation," said board chairman Don Fleming.

Teacher layoffs, combined with fewer teaching assistants, is bad news for students, said Ed Butler from the Alberta Teachers' Association.

"They're either dropping programs that are critical to students' success or they are having larger classes, which creates more demands on the teacher and less service for the student."

Control issue

While Hancock says boards are allowed to go into debt to avoid teacher layoffs, Fleming says they are reluctant to do so because that has to be negotiated with the Education Department, which would give the province too much control over board affairs.

Fleming is urging Hancock to ask the province's Treasury Board for more money, something the minister says he won't do right now.

The boards are struggling to meet this year's salary increase for teachers.

Earlier this year, an increase was given to settle a dispute between the province and the Alberta Teachers Association over the Alberta Average Weekly Average Earnings index used to calculate pay raises under the teachers' five-year contract.

The province funded that increase but made no promises about helping school boards fund this year's pay hike.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the province was not funding the pay increase. Alberta school boards were told in March that the province would cover the pay hike awarded to teachers by an independent arbitrator.
    Jul 07, 2010 7:45 AM MT