Last week the Okotoks Town Council began the process of acquiring the Wedderburn land on the north end of town across from Holy Trinity Academy and the St. James Catholic Church. They want this to be an educational, recreational and cultural facility for the community.
Council has made it easy on the NDP in Alberta. In particular one man, David Eggen.
Eggen is the Minister of Education as well as the Minister of Culture and Tourism. In one decision, Council set the scene for Eggen to make his mark in our region.
10 days ago I sat in an audience listening to Eggen speak to a conference of teachers who all gave up their summer time for the teaching profession. At that conference, Eggen told us that he had “found” funding for all 232 school infrastructure projects the former PC Government had announced.
Two things on that; first I must never forget that the PCs were in the habit of announcing and never providing all in an effort to save their own political skin. The former Education Minister is a perfect example of that.
Second, missing from Eggen’s announcement was how much he was banking on future generations to pay for it. He did say that the NDP were not borrowing for operations, but 232 infrastructure projects aren’t operational projects, they’re capital projects.
So I pulled him aside afterward (he was in a major rush to move on, but to be clear it was obvious he’d rather stay and have a depth of discussion). We had 60 seconds, but in that 60 seconds we covered a swath. The first thing he said to me was that he had to borrow through the nose to get that money.
That made the fiscal conservative in me cringe. I asked him if he really was willing to fund 232 projects that might not fit his philosophy. That peaked his attention.
“Mr. Eggen, there are school projects approved to be built outside of the communities, sometimes as far as 10 minutes outside of communities. And you just funded them.”
At that he asked for an example, and I gave him the planned school near Aldersyde which is to serve Okotoks students. I told him it is in an industrial area, it has inadequate infrastructure for traffic, which will also impact the 10-minute response time the closest firehall will have. He balked at the idea, and asked me to contact him with more details. That was the first 40 seconds. The last 20 are for another blog.
So here are the details. Okotoks has no water. It can’t get a commitment on water. As a result it can’t develop, and that includes schools. Yet its 26,000 residents keep having babies. So the Foothills School Division starts looking. It finds space in the open arms of the M.D. of Foothills by the Legacy Fieldhouse.
This would be the third school project designed to be built outside the Okotoks community. Davisburg has two schools, one in each school division, and while it could be argued that they serve a different community, that is prime agricultural land that has been eroded to form dots of acreages all over the countryside. Further, is some instances busses are covering or expected to cover areas on the outskirts of Okotoks. Much like a crosswalk, the lines separating Okotoks from M.D. do not stop cars, and those people are just as much Okotokians as on the other side of the road.
One outlier is an anomaly. Two raises an eyebrow. Three is a trend. The trend to break up communities is beginning to show. This is a trend toward shipping students out of a community, and away from the concept of schools as community hubs. It's a trend to put so much space between neighbours that they no longer need to talk to each other. So Minister Eggen needs to either agree with this trend the PCs set for him, or stamp it out. But if he stamped it out, where would this new school go?
Here comes the Okotoks Town Council to save the day!
Not only did they find a site, but they seem to be appealing to both Eggen’s portfolios. As Minister of Education, he should be thrilled there is now a site that would be basically inside town (remember, those town borders do not a blockade make). He should further be thrilled with the idea of a cultural space adjacent to it. It meets the philosophy of kids staying in the community they live in, and studying in a place that is a community hub.
So what’s the problem? One minor hurdle is that the M.D. needs to agree. That should be a minor issue, but there are some political issues at play that make it a slight challenge. Another is our Wildrose MLA; will he be more interested in the fact that money is being borrowed to build this school, something that is completely anti-Wildrose, or will he see the necessity of having kids go to school in town and give Eggen a thumbs-up? My feel of the current Wildrose opposition is it’s the same as the old one; opposition for opposition’s sake.
Those aren’t the deciding issues, though. Its whether or not Eggen has the political will to stop something he’s already funded. Its whether or not Eggen is just trying to tie up the PCs loose ends, or if he intends on righting the ship. Its whether or not Eggen is willing to stand for something. Its whether or not Eggen is willing to make a stand now, because the Foothills School Division cannot wait for a school for five years. They need it now.
I’d like to think he is. But the ball isn’t in my court, it’s in his.
Your Alberta Party representative in Highwood wants students to go to school in their communities, and not be bussed out. Your Alberta Party representative in Highwood wants schools to be community hubs. Your Alberta Party representative is giving the Okotoks Town Council a big fist pump.
So I call on the Alberta NDP Government, namely Minister Eggen, to endorse this shift to a school community hub, and to help Okotoks get the land to make it happen and quickly. After that, perhaps Minister Eggen should review all the school projects he just funded, and where construction or the tendering process hasn’t already commenced, review if they meet his philosophy of what schools should be. I’d suspect that he might find more than one that doesn’t meet his standards.
While he does, he should tell us how much we’re paying for it. Or rather, tell us how much the next generations will be paying for it. I won’t necessarily be opposing, but I want to hear the NDP plan for making it easier for the next generations to cover the tab. So far I haven’t heard it.
Oh, and I hope that while Eggen is talking about the need for this school that he also talks about why this issue came up in the first place, and help Okotoks get a commitment for the Water For Life program.
Kudos to the Okotoks Town Council for their progressive thinking. It’s time for everyone to get back to building community.
Yesterday, the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta's leader, our unelected Premier, announced a plan to invest $2 billion in school construction projects over the next ten years.
If we ignore the fact that many of the projects announced were already announced once, in some cases twice, I mean thrice, and cancelled or postponed at least as many times, then this is good news.
If we don't ignore that fact, then it's still just wind on a brick wall. The PC's may huff and puff, but in the end, there wasn't a school to blow down.
But let's look positively at this announcement for a second. Finally, there is a plan to construct the space that we need for our growing population. Hopefully each school is going where 10-years-in-the-future Alberta needs it.
But there is something missing in the announcement; the explanation that the PCs are actually using binary math to calculate the real cost.
You see, $2 billion actually equals $10 billion.
(For those who don't understand binary, check my addendum at the bottom for an explanation)
Let me explain why $10 billion in particular, though.
You see, the $2 billion simply announces the construction of 230 empty buildings/modernizations. It costs a great deal more to actual turn those buildings into service centres of education. It takes lots of people (teachers and support staff), resources (textbooks, computers, etc.) and services (electricity, heating, internet, etc.) to operate them.
Alberta's operating budget for Education in 2014 is approximately $6.75 billion. If the province is building an additional 230 schools, that means they'll be adding approximately 10.5% of the current number of schools. Logic then dictates that it would require an additional 10.5% of the current operating budget to make these schools work. That would be an additional $710 million required in the operating budget.
Don't forget, the plan is to take place over the next ten years. That's $7.1 billion extra not currently included in the budget. Account for inflation, and suddenly that $2 billion promise ends up adding to over $10 billion.
Would the expected increase in population by 1 million help take care of that burden? Perhaps. Is the above example a little simplistic? Perhaps. However, it makes clear that simply building schools requires far more commitment than the PCs have undertaken.
You see, each Albertan would have to pay more taxes to cover that commitment. In order to fund healthcare and other social services to similar levels and similar growth while covering this commitment, the PCs would have to increase taxes by about 2%. That doesn't sound like much, until you hear that such an increase would be the difference between an average of about $10,000 being increased to $11,000. For those on a living wage, $1,000 is a lot of money.
Keep in mind, those simplistic calculations are only representative if every Albertan pays taxes. Don't forget, our kids don't really pay taxes, so the taxes have to be distributed over fewer Albertans.
But such an increase wasn't included in the announcement. Nor was discussion on changing how we collect royalty income from primary resources. Nor was there any announcement of some new magical income source for the province (mind you, we are in a by-election, and the PCs love announcements, it could come any day now).
So even if I am optimistic, and truly believe the schools would be built under a PC government, I have no clue how they plan on paying for the buildings and the stuff to go in them.
Thank goodness I'm optimistic about something else; an Alberta Government operated by someone other than the PCs.
Which leads me to the Wildrose Party, as they are the heavy favourites to form the next government. I am reminded of an announcement they made recently about Education. Actually, come to think of it, it was less than a week before the PC's announcement. It's value ... $2 billion dollars. Announced during a by-election.
Is there an echo in here?
As for the costing of this brilliant plan (I say brilliant, because it really is a good idea to inject that money into Education, regardless of who has the idea), again we are lacking in details. The timeline is more aggressive than the PC timeline, going for four years instead of ten. That means their $2 billion announcement becomes only a $5 billion commitment with the operating costs included.
But in four years, we aren't expected to have 1 million new Albertans. We're expected to have more around 400,000 new Albertans. That means more of a burden would be downloaded to Albertan taxpayers. Except that the Wildrose are adamant that taxes not be changed, so they have to find the money elsewhere. I'm not the first to realize this, Luke Fevin pointed it out clearly after the Wildrose release.
I think putting $2 billion into building schools is brilliant, regardless of who actually enacts it, and especially if they are placed in such a way as to encourage the development of communities. I think the commitment to operating these empty buildings should be expressed, and so far it hasn't.
So now I must express my optimistic frustration. I know a party who not only has a plan to fix the infrastructure crisis in Education, but has that plan costed, as well. However, that party hasn't had the opportunity to have that plan brought forth to their membership, and so hasn't been able to publicize it the way they want, which is hard for me as someone who has worked on it. So I have to rely on "just trust me, they have a plan, and it includes how to pay for it." Knowing that plan exists has me very optimistic, but knowing how hard it is for people to trust politicians, especially those who just say "just trust me", has me very frustrated.
So let me put it this way. You know what you'll get from the PCs. The Wildrose have explained their position as well, yet it still lacks the detail necessary to trust it.
You might not know Greg Clark or the Alberta Party yet. But at the very least, I hope you're optimistic.
BINARY EXPLANATION: By referencing binary, I probably just geeked myself out a bit. Computers, who work in binary, only work with OFFs or ONs, Trues or Falses, represented as zeros and ones. In order to represent something else, you have to combine zeros and ones, so binary systems use 10 to represent the number two)
I spoke to a former PC supporter recently who voted for the new Premier. I've also read a blog by a PC supporter as well. Both indicated that the new Premier has given them hope that the PC party can lead the province again. These responses, only two weeks into Jim Prentice's Premiership, lead me to ask the question;
Do you like fishing with knots and kinks in your line?
Me, I'd prefer to fish with a good straight line. I have a better chance of getting the job done without the line breaking ... again.
Make no mistake, anyone who believes in the PC party's ability to govern is fishing with knots in their line. And there are a lot of knots.
Prentice was silent in his first week as Premier. He spent that entire week loosening knots so that he could unravel them in public in his second week, as a way of saying "look, I'm fixing things!"
But a trust is broken. The line is kinked. That makes the line weak. And Alberta is a big fish.
Not only that, but he has ignored some fairly significant knots that remain, and have no glimmer of hope that they be untied.
The Disaster Recovery Program, or DRP (which in flood-affected communities is now a three-letter swear word) is not even on Prentice's radar. He mentioned nothing of it to Diana McQueen, who is now the fourth minister in 14 months to be in charge of the program. The program is in shambles, and hundreds of people still remain displaced from their homes.
It was one place former Premier Alison Redford tried to keep the line straight, by telling flood victims that they would be helped to full recovery. Then other ministers like Doug Griffiths, Ken Hughes, and lastly Greg Weadick tied it into the DRP knot. And this isn't just some shoe-tying knot, this is a Gordian knot, and Prentice is no Alexander the Great.
Another knot made bigger since the 2012 election was patronage appointments. Starting with Evan Berger, who was ousted in the last election but given a sweet management position in the Agriculture Ministry, this knot was made bigger by the appointments of Stephen Mandel in Health and Gordon Dirks in Education. Nothing suggests that Mandel and Dirks can't do a good job, it's just that no Albertan chose them. Prentice might be able to untie the patronage knot, but that kink will always be in the PC line, making voters wonder if they just can't see the trough for the pigs.
A kink sits where the government aircraft knot once sat. Just because government officials can't take advantage of planes anymore doesn't mean there aren't other ways. That kink can still knot up again, but it might not be airplanes doing it.
The entire Education portfolio is tied up in knot after knot. Former Education Minister Jeff Johnson started by bargaining in bad faith (knot 1), compromising teachers' private emails (knot 2), legislating instead of negotiating (knot 3), trumpeting an uninformed taskforce on teaching excellence (knot 4), usurping teacher conduct review unnecessarily (knot 5), and attempting to force Boards to provide information that had no chance of being compiled properly (knot 6).
Prentice had a chance to start loosening these knots back in August at a gathering of some of the most influential teachers in the province. He skipped it. Instead, he appointed someone nobody had the opportunity to speak to about Education. To teachers, that equates to appointing someone with no intention of listening. Teachers will say they hope that's not the case, but they have no proof. Not only that, but Jeff Johnson was given another portfolio, but rather than the defenceless youth, now he's in charge of the defenceless seniors.
Prentice also made an attempt at untying a knot when he announced the opening of four starter schools in Calgary. But have you ever tried to untie a knot using mittens? That is in effect what he's doing when he builds makeshift schools with no gyms, libraries, music rooms or other specialty spaces. Taxpayer dollars will be spent on sub-par temporary buildings that will direct resources away from the permanent facilities that are meant to replace them. That's like using 4-pound test line to fish for tuna ... after dark.
Am I taking the metaphor too far when I say schools of fish will never be caught with this tangled line?Albertans need a hook. Albertans need a straight line. And Albertans need a strong angler to reel us in.
The PCs have no hook. Their line is so kinked and knotted it looks like it's been braided by a four-year-old. And Prentice is no fisherman.