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Cutbacks aren’t the answer

January 27, 2015 Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor

ATA president says education system can’t withstand funding cuts

Teachers have already done their part to help the province balance its books, so Premier Jim Prentice needs to look elsewhere for fixes to the fiscal crunch brought about by the tanking of global oil prices.

That’s the message that Alberta Teachers’ Association President Mark Ramsankar is delivering in the wake of public comments by Prentice that he hopes to have “respectful” conversations with public sector unions about the province’s financial situation.

Ramsankar points out that teachers have been living with a three-year salary freeze according to a legislated settlement imposed by former premier Alison Redford and are finally set to get a much-needed raise — of two per cent — in September.

“The premier can’t expect to balance the budget on the backs of teachers,” Ramsankar said. “This isn’t new management; the premier is using the same tricks as Alison Redford.”

Figures used by the provincial government suggest that Alberta’s public sector earns 12 per cent more on average than counterparts elsewhere in Canada. Meanwhile, Prentice said the province is also operating the nation’s lowest tax regime, a situation made possible because the government takes in $10 billion a year from oil and gas royalties.

“Those oil royalties have, at this point, essentially evaporated and it brings into question the harsh fiscal realities that this is unsustainable,” the premier told reporters Jan. 14.

Like the presidents of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees and the United Nurses of Alberta, Ramsankar says spending cuts aren’t the answer.

Public servants aren’t the only Albertans making more than other Canadians, he added, as private sector salaries are 26 per cent higher than the national private sector average.

Meanwhile, the wealthiest Albertans are paying a third less in tax than their counterparts in Saskatchewan.

And during the time that Alberta teacher salaries have been frozen, average wages in the province have increased by more than 10 per cent and the cost of living has risen by more than five per cent, he said.

“Teachers have already supported the government with its financial problems, but they are still waiting for the government to live up to its end of the bargain,” Ramsankar said.

Critical condition

The provincial framework that imposed a teacher salary freeze also included a promise to improve classroom conditions, but the government has failed to deliver, Ramsankar said. “The government’s efforts through clause C1 of the framework have been underwhelming and many school boards need to do a better job living up to their obligations under clause C2,” he said. He also noted that class sizes have grown by nearly 10 per cent since 2008, and students with special needs have been included in classes with inadequate supports. “Our system has grown by nearly 70,000 students, and the number of teaching positions quite simply has not kept up.” “In Alberta, we have an opportunity to have a great education system, and that comes from having great teachers and great students working in great schools,” Ramsankar said. “Great students need support, but those supports have been deteriorating. Class sizes are back to where they were in 2002, but students with special needs are included in classes now without adequate support.”

Ramsankar expects that next year will likely see another three per cent increase in student population, and the government has committed to fund its legislated teacher settlement, which will require another increase of nearly three per cent to cover the raises and lump sum payments that teachers are owed.

“If the government does not increase school board funding by at least six per cent, the supports that our great students need will continue to erode,” Ramsankar said. “Government needs to find a way to make funding a priority, or bursting classes in bursting schools will simply get worse.” ❚

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