Educators predict layoffs, school closures following budget

With postsecondary education facing a 6.9 per cent decrease and school boards struggling with programing cuts, educators are painting a grim picture of the province's budget.
University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera says the 6.9 per cent cut to post-secondary education may lead to an Alberta brain drain. (Scott Lilwall/CBC)

With post-secondary education funding taking the hardest hit in the 2013-2014 Alberta budget, university administrators say it will have a massive impact on the quality of education.

"I think it is very serious," said Indira Samarasekera, president of the University of Alberta.

"At a time when these students are looking for the best-possible, high-quality education, we’re going to have to take a real hit on the quality."

The new budget reduces operational grants for Alberta colleges and universities by about $147 million for the next year -- a cut of about 6.9 per cent.

University of Calgary president Elizabeth Cannon says the university was expecting a 2 per cent increase for each of the next three years and were caught off guard by the cuts.  "That was extremely surprising, very, very disappointing and ultimately will have an impact on students, our faculty research and innovation, and ultimately the future of the province," Cannon said.

"We’re going to have to go back, talk to our stakeholders and see where we can create more efficiencies."   She also says it might be time to look at structural changes to the province’s post-secondary system.

Samarasekera says the U of A will almost certainly have to lay off staff to make the cuts.

That could have long-term effects for the future of Alberta, she says.

More budget reaction

"It is a historic day, it is a historically sad day. This is the ‘back-in-debt’ budget.... this premier is plunging this province back into debt. Significant debt." - Wildrose leader Danielle Smith

"The amount of money we get for the police seems to be down about five million dollars and that does have an impact on our operating budget and the police are certainly going to have to look for those efficiencies." - Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi

"Cuts to home care, cuts to senior care and cuts to healthcare are actually going to take the healthcare system back to the brink it was at a couple years ago." - Liberal leader Raj Sherman

"I’m not surprised, but disappointed. Workers took a hit three years ago … I think as a union we have shown that we will fight for our members and the services Albertans deserve." - AUPE president Guy Smith

"They can borrow for capital, then they build it. But they don’t provide the money to hire nurses and teachers to staff it." - NDP leader Brian Mason

"Their whole form of future savings and expenditures are brought to us by the same gang that got us into this mess. So, I think that any gang that believes in the tooth fairy will accept these projections as helpful." - U of A political science professor Jim Lightbody

"Kids are going to school in portables that are already full of kids. Clearly this is not a good day … for education in this province." - Liberal Education Critic Kent Hehr

"My biggest worry is a potential brain drain of the best and brightest of Albertans if they see that the educational experience that they are receiving is not what they're going to get elsewhere."

In the budget, the province says that the cost of tuition will not rise beyond cost of living increases. It also lays out  $282 million over three years towards new facilities at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, Norquest College, University of Calgary, Lethbridge College and Mount Royal University.

However, Samarasekera says the loss of the operating grants will be felt by the institutions, which are already hurting from years of freezes and cuts.

"We have had 20 years of cuts … show me where the fat is to cut."

Schools face "tough choices"

Elementary and high schools in the province don’t face the same level of cuts, but school boards say the provincial budget will still lead to hard choices.

"It isn't going to be status quo education. There will definitely have to be some decisions made on how we can minimize the impact on kids," said Sarah Hoffman, a trustee with Edmonton Public Schools.

The budget sets aside $6.1 billion in operating and property tax support to public and separate school boards across the province -- on par with last year.

However, there have been some program cuts. Among them, the province has eliminated the $41-million Alberta Initiative for School Improvement. The program encouraged teachers and parents to think of creative ways to improve education. Its budget was cut in half in 2011 and has now been eliminated completely.

"We see this as funding that was absolutely crucial to our district’s success," said Debbie Engel, chair of the Edmonton Catholic School Board.

She says the AISI program was used for things like "high school completion coaches" in schools, which has led to a significant increase in the graduation rate for Edmonton high schools.

Engel says she was surprised the province decided to eliminate the fund as of April, instead of waiting for the next school year.

Debbie Engel says school boards will have to look at closing schools in metro areas following cuts to operating grants. (Scott Lilwall/CBC News)

"We’re not only looking at not being able to start new projects or continue projects, we’re looking at stopping them midstream here in a month’s time."

Warnings of school closures, layoffs

The budget does set aside new capital money to build schools -- the province has pledged $503 million, which it says will pay for the construction of 50 new schools and the modernization of 70 more.

Engel says the new capital spending is sorely needed. But she says it comes at a cost of maintenance programs that are vital to keeping existing schools running. With cuts to schools’ operating budgets, she says that could lead to closures for schools with fewer students.

"Keeping those big buildings alive and functioning and cleaned … you’re going to have to make some choices as a school board what to keep open."

The budget doesn’t set aside any extra money for teachers, who have spent months in heated contract negotiations with the province.

Without new money, the president of the Alberta Teachers' Association says the province will see massive layoffs.

"In real dollars, I think it's about 197 million short in what boards will need to provide the same service to students," said ATA president Carol Henderson.

She says as many as 400 teachers may lose their jobs.

""I'm just terribly disappointed as a primary teacher."