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'Band-Aid' schools: Just the thing for a government suffering the death of a thousand cuts

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Jim Prentice

So we can probably all see how this one is going to roll out: Premier Jim Prentice announced four new "starter" public schools in under-served Calgary suburbs today. That's just Calgary.

Today or tomorrow, if he likes, he can announce four more in Edmonton, a couple more the next day in Red Deer or Lethbridge, and so on, just to keep the good news rolling, day after cheerful day, at least until the next session of the Legislature begins.

At such a rate, Alberta would soon be approaching press release production unseen since the record-breaking levels reached by the Stelmach Government back between 2006 and 2011. Back then, it seemed as if the so-called Public Affairs Bureau, the world's largest publicly owned advertising agency, used to churn out five and six news releases every day.

The Prentice Government is calling the new schools "Starter Schools," seeing as they will be slapped up as temporary structures on sites where the government promises permanent schools will be built later. They are, however, bound to come to be known as "Band-Aid Schools," after what their critics are inevitably already calling them, especially if they last as long as I suspect some of them may.

"This is a Band-Aid," huffed MLA Jeff Wilson, pinch-hitting as Wildrose education critic, predictably and accurately enough. The Alberta Liberals' education critic, Kent Hehr, called the new schools "a Band-Aid solution for the infrastructure crisis facing Alberta's schools." The New Democrats probably said the same thing, but I must've missed that press release.

In the mean time, budget hawks take note, the new schools may not be of the very best quality -- possibly only a step up from the kind of temporary trailers used in Tarpatch bush camps north of Fort McMurray -- but they won't cost very much either. So at least on this point, and at least until after the next general election, Prentice can have cake and eat it too. He will be building public schools. He won't be overspending on them.

The cost of the schools named in the Calgary announcement will be about $30 million. And, seriously, what would the opposition parties have said if Prentice had added another $2 billion or so -- which happens to be the sum already budgeted by the Redford Government for new schools -- to the provincial budget?

Each Band-Aid School will house about 250 students in 10 modular buildings. They won't have a gym or a library, or, presumably, a music room.

But they can also be bolted together very quickly -- say, in time to be on display in a neighbourhood near you for the next general election.

Notwithstanding Wilson's assessment that "this is a failure," that is not at all clear from a political point of view. There's a purpose for Band-Aids, and the suburban Calgary neighbourhoods that will get these structures sound like the right kind of places with an urgent need for schools now, permanent details to be worked out later.

What's more, from the perspective of a government that's been suffering the death of a thousand cuts, Band-Aids may be just what it needs right now!

The real question will be how temporary the schools in fact turn out to be.

They will become a political liability at some point if the better-quality permanent facilities don’t get built as pledged with gyms, libraries and music rooms. But my guess is parents in the neighbourhoods where they are planned -- pretty solid Tory territory historically for the most part -- will be happy to have anything close to home in the short to medium term.

That's almost certainly time enough to get the government through the next election. Call that cynical if you will, it will hardly matter to the PCs if it works.

But temporary buildings can turn out to be useful for longer than anyone expects.

The University of Victoria -- where I did my undergraduate studies -- was built on the site of an old Canadian Army camp in Gordon Head and made use of many "temporary" army huts that had been slapped together soon after the Second World War started in 1939.

After 75 years, several of them are still in use. Presumably the last of them will be phased out in, oh, another 25 years or so.

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

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