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Alberta Advanced Education Ministry now maintaining close watch on Athabasca U

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Marlin Schmidt

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When we last talked about the Athabasca University saga on March 3, the distance-education institution based in the town of Athabasca had just been instructed by the provincial government to hang fire on publishing its budget and to wait for a meeting with then-just-appointed Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt.

That report followed the Jan. 25 revelation in this space that the financially troubled public post-secondary university had been quietly negotiating with the city of St. Albert to move its information technology department and possibly other operations 150 kilometres south to the Edmonton-area suburban community.

Since then, there has been a fairly long list of minor developments that, taken together, give the strong impression AU's Tory-appointed board of governors and the university's senior administrators are still having trouble singing from the hymn sheet they have been handed by the NDP government, as has been a recent pattern.

So let's rewind and review the developments for which documentation exists since that last report:

  • March 10: Advanced Education Minister Schmidt meets as planned with AU Acting Board Chair Margaret Mrazek and Interim President Peter MacKinnon, whose term is scheduled to expire this summer.
  • March 11: MacKinnon emails all staff members to indicate he has attended the meeting, which he describes as substantive but not conclusive on important details, adding, "we have agreed not to comment publicly (including in the media and social media) at this time."
  • March 11: Schmidt emails all stakeholder unions and says he has instructed the board chair and the president to come up with a plan to bring stability to AU. "I have made clear to the board chair and president the need to engage with staff, faculty, students and the Athabasca community."
  • March 14: In the Legislature's Question Period, Schmidt is asked if he has confidence in AU's board. He does not directly answer that question, but does say AU will be remaining in Athabasca and that he intends to fill AU board vacancies.
  • March 15: Schmidt tells an Athabasca radio station that he has directed the AU board and president to keep certain principles in mind in their plans, the foremost of which is "to ensure that Athabasca University is kept in Athabasca."
  • March 18: President MacKinnon indicates in a memo to faculty and staff that in consultation with government officials, he had decided to withdraw the university's previously proposed budget.
  • March 25: The government publishes an advertisement for a new board chair. It indicates applications not chosen as chair may be considered for other board positions as current occupants' terms expire.
  • March 29: Schmidt writes in a letter to the Athabasca Advocate community newspaper in which he confirms the board has been instructed to come up with a sustainability plan and restates that the government understands the importance of AU to the community's economic well-being.
  • March 29: In an email to staff, President MacKinnon confirms that the board has been told to come up with a plan, and says this will be done with the assistance of a third party.
  • April 5: Athabasca MLA Colin Piquette, a New Democrat, tells the local radio station "it is our intention to do everything possible to keep AU in Athabasca." He adds, in the reporter's words, "the last place the government would look for cost savings at Athabasca University is layoffs."
  • April 11: The deadline for applications for board chair.
  • April 12: AU President MacKinnon tells the local newspaper that "layoffs are an option" as a result of the university's new budget.

So, what are we to conclude from all this? Other than the obvious, that is, that despite the meetings and directives, top AU officials and senior officials of the Advanced Education Ministry are not yet singing in harmony.

It is impossible to know with absolute certainty. However, it is not unreasonable to surmise these developments indicate ...

  • The ministry has now intervened in AU's budgeting process.
  • The ministry has rejected the plan to move any operations south to St. Albert.
  • The ministry has inserted the unnamed third party in the process of coming up with a plan for AU's future.
  • The minister has tacitly indicated his lack of confidence in the board and administration.
  • The ministry intends to control who now joins the board.

In other words, it might well to fair to speculate that the government has put Athabasca University into a form of "soft receivership" -- or, at least, put its current board and administration on a very short leash.

The minister, obviously, will now play a pivotal role in choosing new board members. But it also seems likely in such circumstances that the government will also play a key role, or at least exercise a veto, over who replaces MacKinnon as president. That, in turn, could affect the outcome negotiations with AU employees' unions and on future actions by the administration.

We await official developments.

Edmonton Public School Board votes to seek end to public funds for charter, private schools

Edmonton Public School Board voted six to three Tuesday evening to support Chair Michael Janz's motion to "reaffirm its commitment to the provincial government that public funding to private or charter schools should be phased out and reinvested in public education."

The motion means the board will continue to press the province to phase out funding for private schools and to transfer the control of all so-called charter schools to the public school board.

This ratchets up the public pressure on the NDP government to do something about an unpopular policy relic of the Ralph Klein era in Alberta government, the more than $200 million in public funds spent on charter and private schools. The demand is the ironic result of an effort by interim PC Leader Ric McIver to get the Legislature to pass a member's motion supporting public finding for private and charter schools.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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