'Stark' financial realities prompted Alberta government to cut school funding, finance minister says

Alberta’s education minister broke a promise to students and employees by cutting school funding during the coronavirus pandemic, critics say.

About 26,000 jobs in question after school funding slashed

Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews says the provincial government needs to spend money in the area of greatest need. Right now, that need is responding to the novel coronavirus pandemic, he said Monday. (Juris Graney/CBC)

Alberta's education minister broke a promise to students and employees by cutting school funding during the coronavirus pandemic, critics say.

"I'm really concerned that we have a rogue government that is making decisions that are not in the best interest of Albertans," said Carol Thompson, president of Canadian Union of Public Employees local 3550, on Monday. Her local represents about 3,000 school support workers at Edmonton Public Schools.

Educational assistants and school administrators have been busier than usual, she said, organizing students' belongings, and preparing a move to online and remote learning since classes were abruptly cancelled across the province on March 15.

As many as 26,000 substitute teachers, "non-essential" school support workers, custodians and maintenance workers and bus drivers could temporarily lose their jobs after Education Minister Adriana LaGrange moved Saturday to slice $128 million out of the $8.3-billion education budget.

A Saturday memo said school divisions should immediately issue layoff notices to thousands of employees so they can qualify for federal employment insurance. Divisions' grants are being cut by 14 per cent for May and June and the remainder of their transportation budget is hacked in half.

The move was in contrast to LaGrange's comments on March 15, when she said, "school authorities will receive their full allotment of funding for the 2019-20 school year."

Yet, a spokesperson for Finance Minister Travis Toews said the current situation is unprecedented.

Toews' press secretary Jerrica Goodwin said the provincial government anticipates spending "many times the value" of a $750-million provincial disaster fund in the budget.

A limit to Alberta's borrowing

Toews said during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shuttered non-essential business across the province, the United Conservative government has to direct public funding where it's most needed.

With school staff now expected to teach students remotely, there was an opportunity to move "resources to where they really matter," Toews said on Edmonton AM on Monday.

"This will be the tip of the iceberg compared to what will happen to the private sector in the upcoming weeks and months," he said. "It's absolutely incumbent on us as the government to ensure that we're moving resources to the greatest need."

In an email Monday, Goodwin, said Alberta is grappling with increased expenses to respond to the pandemic and its economic fallout while government revenues decrease. As the government defers corporate income tax and property tax payments, student loan payments and oil industry regulator fees, it's pulling in little cash from royalty revenues as a global price war pushes oil prices to rock bottom.

Although the government will run a "sizeable" deficit due to COVID-19 and its economic consequences, there are limits to Alberta's borrowing in an economic downturn, she said. Alberta's credit rating has seen downgrades, and the province cannot print more money, she said.

"The government must be cognizant of these stark realities," she said.

Government coffers currently have enough cash to pay their bills, she said.

Education Minister LaGrange declined an interview request Monday.

Colin Aitchison, LaGrange's press secretary, said each school board, private or charter school will decide how to manage the layoffs based on their needs.

Teachers and specialists such as speech language pathologists, occupational therapists, mental health workers and physiotherapists will still be on the job, Aitchison said.

School boards still looking for detail on cuts

Three school divisions contacted on Monday -- Edmonton Public, Edmonton Catholic, and Elk Island Public Schools -- all said they were awaiting notice of how much their funding will be cut for the remainder of the school year.

Once they have that information, it will take time to determine the number of employees they will temporarily lay off and how contracts with school bus companies will be affected, they said.

At a Monday press conference organized by the Opposition NDP, parent Jessica Kewley slammed the government's move to announce the job cuts on a Saturday by press release and tweets.

"The schools, as well as the parents, were blindsided by everything," said Kewley, who has four children who require extra assistance at school. "None of that is OK. I was really counting on, and some of the other families were counting on, that additional support at this time to help our kids navigate this brand new system."

John Vradenburgh, president of CUPE Local 474, said he felt betrayed by the government's about-face on school funding. The union represents about 800 custodians employed by Edmonton Public Schools.

Some of the workers will have to stay on the job to monitor school boilers, either remotely or in person, he said.

Many custodians were hoping to use cancelled classes as an opportunity to clean the parts of the buildings they rarely get to.

"I believe (government) is using the cloak of a pandemic to further take apart public services," Vradenburgh said. "No public services would be a good thing if you like the UCP. All private -- everything."

Thompson also panned the government's decision as a political move. She said it's hypocritical for the premier to plead with private employers to hang on to their employees while demanding school boards cut public sector jobs.

Workers have called her in tears because they didn't expect to be laid off, she said. 

"Many of them, their partners have already been laid off, and they are the sole source of income right now. They're devastated, they're panicking. They are psychologically so affected by all of this."

-- With files from Paige Parsons and Wallis Snowdon