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.