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Education minister’s goal of building 400 new schools in Alberta being met with cautious optimism

Alberta’s education minister says he wants to build 400 schools in our province over the next decade. And to fund them, he is considering what he calls “innovative ways” of financing the infrastructure.

Currently, the province pays “cash up front” to build new schools, which means only approximately five to seven new schools can be built annually. Minister Thomas Lukaszuk would like to see that changed.

“No businesses buy property that way, no Albertan lives in a tent until he saves enough money to buy a house,” he says. “What you do is you amoritize the cost of the building and then you write-off the depreciation.”

In addition to essentially taking out mortgages to build the schools, Lukaszuk also believes the province can’t afford to continue building schools the way we have been.

“I’m looking for partnerships. I’m looking for a municipality to put in a public library in a school, I’m looking for a YMCA or a Boys and Girls club to co-locate. I’m looking for a daycare to co-locate in schools to create community hubs.”

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While school officials agree there’s a huge need for more schools because of major overcrowding problems – especially in Edmonton’s west, southwest and north – they are cautiously optimistic about Lukaszuk’s plan.

“We’re excited about the new schools…but we really hope that a lot has been learned not only in terms of the P3 (public-private partnership) agreement and the limitations and struggles it’s cost school boards, ” says Debbie Engel, the chair of the Edmonton Catholic School Board.

She explains that some of those challenges faced by schools which have been in contracts with third parties have centered around permission to rent out space in the schools, as well as the ability to build portable classrooms. 

On Edmonton’s Public School Board, vice-chair Sarah Hoffman is also open to the idea being proposed by Lukaszuk, but hopes that it won’t take away from what existing schools need.

“We would really like to see a balance between supporting schools in established neighbourhoods that need upgrades as well as building in new neighbourhoods where there is a need for new schools,” she says. 

Even parents whose children are facing overcrowding in classrooms and who recognize the need for more schools, are slightly doubtful about how feasible Lukaszuk’s ambitious plan actually is.

“I believe that it’s not always quantity of schools but the placement of schools,” says Rachelle Oswald.

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Engel agrees. “We’ve got a problem where we’ve got aging infrastructure and empty seats in an area where there isn’t enough children to fill a school and operate a program,” she says, “and then we’ve got bursting at the seams on the outskirts of town where we really need schools to service the kids.”

Lukaszuk insists the government is looking at demographics, though, and recognizes each community’s unique needs.

While he doesn’t have an estimate as to how much constructing 400 new schools will cost, he does, however, hope to have some answers from the Treasury Board soon.

 

 

With files from Fletcher Kent, Global News 

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