Alberta government accelerates school repair funding to create jobs

Alberta’s government is hoping to boost summer and early fall employment by speeding up spending on school repairs.

Critic questions maintenance funding left for future years

Alberta's Education Minister Adriana LaGrange wants school divisions to count how many people are hired with accelerated funding for school maintenance projects. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

The Alberta government is hoping to boost summer and fall employment by speeding up spending on school repairs.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said on Wednesday that the government will bump ahead $250 million to school divisions and charter schools for roof repairs, plumbing, electrical, and other school maintenance work that can start immediately.

The cash is part of a provincial $1-billion accelerated investment in maintenance and renewal Premier Jason Kenney announced last month.

"This strategic initiative is great news for staff and students who will benefit from more healthy and safe learning environments as many more projects will now move forward right away, rather than having to wait," LaGrange said at a Wednesday news conference.

The money is in addition to $194 million schools are already receiving this year for infrastructure maintenance and renewal.

LaGrange hopes it creates 3,750 jobs in the spring, summer and early fall. She's requiring school divisions to count how many jobs the money creates and report those numbers to the education ministry.

The investment is part of a broader provincial government plan to create jobs quickly while the coronavirus pandemic and crashing oil prices lead to soaring unemployment.

By mid-April, Statistics Canada estimates 10 per cent of working-age Albertans had lost work since the pandemic reached Canada.

Huge backlog of school repair waiting

Edmonton Catholic Schools will get $14.3 million and Edmonton Public Schools will receive $31.4 million of the accelerated funding.

It's good news for the public school division, which had a $768-million backlog of deferred maintenance at last count, board chair Trisha Estabrooks said on Wednesday.

The division's mounting list of repairs and replacements put off due to insufficient funding is expected to reach $1 billion by 2027.

"This really is the ideal time to do some of this important work on our schools," she said. "There's no students in our schools right now. This also will help keep people employed in our city."

Edmonton Public School Board chair Trisha Estabrooks said sped up money for school repair will be well used. The division has a $768-million backlog of deferred maintenance work to tackle. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Tallying the number of workers employed could be a challenge, she said. Some of the work could be done by maintenance workers already employed by the division.

However, she is concerned about the implications for school maintenance funding available in future years.

The government isn't investing new money, but spending some money early that was to be allocated for school repairs in 2021 and 2022.

NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman, who was Edmonton public school board chair from 2012 to 2014, says past funding fluctuations led to a "yo-yo effect" of school construction work. It was hard to plan for the future and some badly needed projects spent years on a waiting list.

"They're saying, 'We're going to spend money this year that otherwise would have been spent in future years,' " Hoffman said. "But that doesn't mean we won't have needs in those future years as well."

Jerrica Goodwin, press secretary for Finance Minister Travis Toews, said Wednesday there still will be school repair money available in 2021 and 2022. A future dollar amount wasn't available Wednesday. Budgets are re-evaluated yearly, she said

LaGrange also said Wednesday that work is continuing on a detailed school "re-entry plan" for when cases of COVID-19 subside in the province. The government is waiting for advice from the chief medical officer of health about when children could return to classrooms and what steps schools will need to take to prevent the spread of disease.

The government cancelled in-person classes in March as part of the effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The education minister also told school divisions to lay off thousands of school support workers for May and June and pulled back $128 million in school funding.