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UCP yanks Alberta school funding in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic

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Education Minister Adriana LaGrange and Premier Jason Kenney. Image: Premier of Alberta/Flickr

Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m., Alberta school trustees learned funding was about to be yanked by the provincial government with no notice or discussion with boards.

Massive layoffs are expected to result. Up to 20,000 substitute teachers, educational assistants, non-essential support staff and bus drivers will all face immediate layoffs.

The Kenney government used school closings resulting from the COVID-19 epidemic as the excuse.

Under the headline "K-12 education funding temporarily adjusted to match cost," the public announcement from Education Minister Adriana LaGrange says that "with in-school classes cancelled indefinitely, funding for K-12 education is being temporarily adjusted to reflect the cost of at-home learning by students during the COVID-19 pandemic."

"This funding will be restored when in-person classes resume," it continued. (When that will happen, of course, is unknown.) The cuts will amount to a 14 per cent reduction to the base instruction grant and 51 per cent to transportation funding, a government spokesman told the CBC.

During a COVID-19 news conference on March 15 at which the school closings were announced, LaGrange had assured Albertans that "school authorities will receive their full allotment of funding for the 2019-2020 school year." As recently as yesterday, one source said, LaGrange indicated no changes or announcements were expected.

Well that's one way to get Health Minister Tyler Shandro's execrable behaviour off the news media's front burner! School boards were totally blindsided.

Reaction was immediate and strong.

"We figure this could be up to 20,000 people, about 10,000 CUPE members and about 10,000 others," said Rory Gill, president of CUPE Alberta.

"It's a very surprising event," he told me. "It's incredibly disruptive and incredibly short-sighted on behalf of the government."

"On a Saturday afternoon, the Kenney government has just fired thousands of people who look after and educate our kids," Gill said in a news release. "The minister has just passed the buck to the federal government and told education workers, 'good luck out there, there are programs you can access.'"

"You can't just fire thousands of educational assistants and expect them to all run back to the system in the fall," he added. "This is a recipe for a massive brain drain. … We should be helping people keep their jobs during the crisis, not putting front line workers out on the street."

Using Twitter, University of Alberta economist Andrew Leach asked: "How does cutting funding to schools and forcing layoffs of staff advance the safety of all Albertans? Which other businesses should advance the safety of Albertans through layoffs and/or cuts in payments to contract suppliers at this time?"

Edmonton Public School Board trustee Bridget Sterling tweeted to LaGrange: "This is incredibly cruel. The federal government has directed employers to keep people working whenever possible. Even your government has asked the same. And yet you are putting thousands of workers onto aid programs at a time when they need their government the most."

"I hope Albertans remember that when they needed their government to be there for them the most, you failed them," she continued in another tweet. "You instead decided to send thousands more working families into precarity and fear during this time. For shame."

Michael Janz, another Edmonton Public School Board trustee, agreed, tweeting: "My fear for the future is that this government won't hire back the people they have laid off, as an attempt to cut investments in education and avoid the headlines of future job losses. You can't fire those that you don't hire back."

Orders to school boards from the deputy minister of education include the following instructions: "Our direction to school authorities is to limit the use of substitute teachers effective March 31 so these individuals can apply to the expanded federal employment insurance program, as well as other federal support programs."

"School authorities should immediately begin to provide notice to educational assistants with the expectation that their services continue until no later than the end of April," the memo from deputy minister Andre Corbould said. "School authorities should immediately begin providing notice to non-essential support staff … School authorities should immediately begin to provide notice to board employed bus drivers."

And in the middle of a global pandemic when it's vital that no one panic, no less.

This cynical use of the deadly and disruptive COVID-19 pandemic as cover for such a destructive announcement with no consultation reinforces the willingness of the United Conservative Party government of Premier Jason Kenney to use the "shock doctrine" to undermine public services.

LaGrange's news release continued: "While funding for teachers and most other aspects of the K-12 system is being maintained, funding for transportation and some services not being utilized in an at-home learning environment, such as substitute teachers and educational assistants, is being temporarily reduced while in-person classes remain cancelled.

"Any savings from these adjustments will be re-allocated to support Alberta's COVID-19 response," the release added, although as with precipitous actions of this sort, whether settled upon for political or ideological reasons, or both as is likely in this case, the actual savings will be small. The government expects that sum to be $128 million, the CBC reported.

As is customary in such documents nowadays, LaGrange got a single canned quote: "COVID-19 has changed both how we provide student learning, and the operational needs of the education system. I want to stress that this is a temporary arrangement as schools focus on at-home learning. I have full confidence the system will continue to be equipped to successfully deliver our education continuity plan."

"Any staff impacted by these funding adjustments will qualify for the federal government's enhanced employment insurance program and other support programs for Canadian workers," the release also said, signalling the Kenney government's intention to download the costs of this policy on the federal government as it responds to the COVID-19 crisis.

Meanwhile, school authorities must still submit their 2020-2021 budgets by the usual date of May 31.

The fact that there has been very little chatter about this as a possibility in government circles suggests it was cooked up in a hurry, although that will probably have to remain speculation given the secretive proclivities of the Kenney government. If the sudden move was decided on short notice, a possible reason was to get the Shandro brouhaha off the media agenda before Postmedia's newspapers were shamed into covering it.

Well, this will give Matt Wolf, the premier's "issues management" guy, something to scream about. Wolf has been mysteriously silent on the topic of Shandro's performative tantrum a week ago in front of the home of his neighbour, a physician who dared to repost an uncomplimentary social media meme about the health minister.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Premier of Alberta/Flickr

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