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Four-day school scheme shows Tories view Fort McMurray as not much more than a work camp

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David Eggen

And where, the good people of Fort McMurray should be asking themselves today as Canadians scratch their heads at the idea of four-day school for children in the Alberta oil sands boom town, is Guy Boutilier now that they really need him?

Boutilier, as readers with long memories may recall, was the Conservative MLA for Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo who was kicked out of the Tory caucus in the summer of 2009 by then-premier Ed Stelmach for speaking up too vigorously on behalf of his constituents in the matter of a seniors' home that was promised but never built.

Boutilier eventually joined the fledgling Wildrose Alliance, which was later to become the right-wing Opposition Wildrose Party.

Alas for him, in the 2012 provincial election, Fort Mac voters had the good sense -- or so they thought at the time -- to give the sometimes-erratic Harvard MBA graduate and former Ralph Klein cabinet minister the bum's rush and replace him with a seemingly reliable Progressive Conservative.

Now another Alberta MLA, Edmonton-Calder New Democrat David Eggen, has with a single news release made the pathetic state of public education in Fort McMurray into a national news story. Indeed, it was top story on the Toronto Star's website hours before the moribund local rag here in Edmonton managed to bestir itself and publish the news that the Fort McMurray Public School District is contemplating reducing its school week to four days to help pay off a projected deficit of $4.4 million.

Not noted in Eggen's news release yesterday, but mentioned at his news conference, was the fact the Catholic school district in the northern town at the centre of Alberta's current oil boom, the one that according to the governing PCs of Premier Alison Redford just went bust, is already operating on a four-day week!

So really, the Fort Mac public school board just trying to harmonize its school days with the academically disastrous but money saving schedule already adopted by its Catholic counterpart.

A significant part of the modest $800,000 to $1 million saved, by the way, would come out of the pockets of school teaching assistants and bus drivers, who would lose up to 20 per cent of their income and their pension because they won't work enough days to qualify. In a high-pay locale like Fort Mac, many of them will simply walk away for better treatment at the local Tim Horton's or wherever.

The cost of daycare and tutoring generated by this policy will be offloaded onto families.

In his revelation of the four-day school fiasco and the school district's continuing financial troubles, Eggen played it as yet another example of continued PC underfunding of basic education in Alberta and the Redford Government's recent history of broken promises.

Fair enough, and seeing as this all started well before Alberta’s boom went bust last month, exposure of this situation to the rest of Canada should be a huge embarrassment to the Redford PCs -- if, that is, they are even capable of being embarrassed.

Eggen, who is the NDP's Education Critic and a schoolteacher by profession, notes that , pedagogically speaking, the idea of having a long weekend every weekend is nearly catastrophic. Most students, he observed, would be permanently disengaged from school. Actually, the way he put it was: "It's insane!"

It doesn't stop in Fort McMurray, either. Many other underfunded Alberta school boards face a situation similar to the one in Fort Mac, so in Redford's new age of austerity, it seems unlikely we have heard the last of four-day schooling for Alberta kids.

But the wellbeing of students -- and especially students in Fort McMurray -- seems to be the last thing in the mind of anyone connected with this government.

Fort McMurray was once seen as a great place to raise a family, and I am sure many citizens of that city work hard every day to keep it that way.

But the attitude of both the provincial and federal governments appears to be that it is simply a huge northern money pit, a mining camp best manned by temporary workers from far away -- who can go back to where they came from and take their troubles with them when their best-before date has passed.

You doubt it? Only one new public school has been built in Fort McMurray in the past 26 years.

The highway to Edmonton is a death trap that the government is only slowly, slowly moving to upgrade.

As for the promised seniors' home that Boutilier got kicked out of caucus for squawking about, well, it's never been built either.

Judging from media coverage, there doesn’t seem to have been a peep about the four-day school week idea from the community's PC MLA, Mike Allen. But then, maybe he's working behind the scenes to rectify things.

Fort McMurray's population of more than 60,000 is expected to double in the next 15 years or so.

But making the money pit those people will come to service a healthy place to grow up or grow old seems to be the last thing on this government's agenda. They just treat it like a work camp.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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