By Tim Kaliowski
David Eggen, Alberta Minister of Education, Culture and Tourism, visited Medicine Hat on Friday, December 18 to talk about the state of education in the province. He said his portfolio has been a steep learning curve for someone who until last May had only ever sat in opposition in the province.
“We have worked very hard the last seven months to make a changeover,” said Eggen. “It’s been very gratifying to see how the public service has been very good for us (after 44 years under the PC Party). I suspect they were looking for constructive change as well.”
Eggen took credit for ushering Bill 8 through the Alberta Legislature as one of his first acts as Minister. Bill 8 essentially puts the province at the negotiating table with school boards and teachers during the collective bargaining process upcoming this spring. Eggen said the bill will give the government more control over the outcomes of collective bargaining and ensure greater fiscal responsibility coming out of negotiations. Eggen said the bill was a big litmus test for his government’s ability to negotiate effectively with the Alberta public service, and should be viewed by the voting public as such.
“For the first time we will have the province, which is the funder of education to the tune of $8.9 billion, at the bargaining table for the teacher negotiations,” explained Eggen. “We know how (collective bargaining) works. And quite frankly when you look across Canada to other jurisdictions, it is quite often that more progressive governments that can get better deals from negotiations. We (the NDP) know we have to negotiate with the fact that public money is in short supply.”
A matter of concern to the Prairie Rose School Division, in particular, is the rising transport costs associated with bussing students in from a widely dispersed rural area. When pressed by the Commentator to see if the government would provide more funding for PRSD, and other rural school divisions in this regard, Eggen would not commit to new money; only new administrative processes that would free school boards to re-allocate from other funds for transport purposes.
“We are maybe looking at freeing up different revenues so that people can make choices,” said Eggen. “I have very much reinforced from day one the importance of the school board level of government having their democratic capacity to develop policy and make choices for their jurisdictions. I know that school bus transportation money is tight on the board level and I am looking at trying to give them a hand.”
One of the first acts the new NDP government did was reverse cuts to education brought in under the former Prentice government. Eggen was asked, given the poor economic situation in the province, if his government was re-thinking its education funding decisions. Eggen implied future cuts were a possibility, but would be done more surgically than the previous government had done them.
“We are watching really closely,” said Eggen. “Education and healthcare take a great deal of the total budget. We just want to make sure we don’t have those devastating cuts that take so long to recover from even after the economy recovers. In a situation where we are seeing lots of job losses in the province, I just want to make sure we keep those essential services functioning and not make the situation even worse. But obviously when you are looking at deficit, you have to look at efficiencies. We (in cabinet) have all been instructed to shake our budgets down very carefully.”