Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach

Does it seem odd to you that Alberta’s Conservative government would be spending more than half a billion dollars to build new schools at the same time as it’s squeezing school board budgets and forcing the layoff of hundreds of teachers?

Well, don’t worry, the explanation is actually fairly simple. Like a lot of things conservative politicians advocate nowadays, this story is really about punishment.

But first the back story…

Just a week ago, Premier Ed Stelmach was announcing proudly that his government would be spending $550 million to build 22 new schools and renovate 13 old ones “to cope with a student population expected to soar by about 100,000 new pupils before the end of the decade.”

By golly, the government release cheerfully quoted the premier as saying, “our students are the future leaders of our province and deserve positive learning environments.”

Indeed, we were reliably informed, these schools will be “bright, welcoming spaces, equipped with the latest technology and designed to adapt to changing educational needs.”

Then some spoilsport went and pointed out the obvious irony of school boards being forced to lay off teachers all over the province because of provincial under-funding, which very well may result in those new learning environments not being quite as welcoming as the government’s sunny press-release writers would like us to imagine.

Province-wide, about 1,000 teachers are likely to get the chop before the next school year, with predictable results for the quality of the education Alberta’s deserving pupils can expect. In Edmonton alone, about 230 teachers are slated to go over the side, with another 90 or so special needs assistants and sundry support workers also out of a job.

Stelmach’s government, you see, has increased the education budget a little, what with all those new students flowing into the province. But as the Edmonton Journal explained in its coverage of a rally on Sunday by a group of unhappy parents, “the provincial government increased the overall education budget this year, but only enough to cover the promised 4.5-per-cent wage increase for teachers.”

Ah, so now we’re starting to get to the bottom of the matter.

You see, back in January, Education Minister Dave Hancock asked the Alberta Teachers Association to forgo a 4.3 per cent pay increase negotiated in collective bargaining. When that idea predictably flopped, the highest paid premier in Canada and his ministers went back to the drawing board and came up with something different.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Stelmach’s Tories are not just reverting to cynical form and punishing Alberta’s teachers for not going along with January’s cost-cutting scheme.

Indeed, our cranky premier yesterday all but confirmed this theory by opining in public that, as the Journal put it, “unreasonable contract demands, not government under-funding, is the reason why 1,000 or more Alberta teachers are expected to lose their jobs this year.”

“We asked for consideration,” said the premier. “It didn’t happen and, as a result, some teachers, especially temporary teachers, will not have a job.”

It’s pretty clear what he meant, isn’t it?

Hancock tried to do some damage control — uh, “I think the premier may have characterized this a little too bluntly” — but, really, it’s hard to argue that the premier didn’t get the tone just about exactly right for what he had in mind.

Presumably the Conservatives are counting on the fact local voters who see new schools arising in their communities will forget all about the missing teachers by the time the next election rolls around, just as we’ve all forgotten about the 34-per-cent raise he and his ministers gave themselves back in 2008.

Anyway, Alberta Conservatives have always liked capital projects that can be built by their friends in business better than bigger paycheques for a bunch of unionized schoolteachers, especially since a goodly number of our Great Plains governators don’t view ‘book learning’ as anything but a bothersome frippery anyway. Come to that, as has been done in the past, surplus buildings can always be sold off at fire sale prices to charter schools.

All this cynically said, this is a pity, because under Stelmach, the Conservatives really seem to have been trying to do better the past couple of years.

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

David J. Climenhaga

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 with the Globe...