Alberta’s education budget features new schools and replacements, the first charter school hub

Alberta’s proposed 2023 budget will fund the construction of 13 school projects and create the province’s first charter school hub in Calgary, the education minister says.

Minister Adriana LaGrange on Wednesday revealed a list of 58 projects across the province that would receive construction funding, design funding, or some preliminary money to start planning.

Among the school projects green-lighted to build are a new francophone secondary school in Airdrie, a new K-9 school in Edmonton’s Edgemont neighborhood, modernization of Calgary’s John G. Diefenbaker High School and a new high school in Raymond.

“We are securing young Albertans’ and their families’ future by investing in new schools and modernized space, so that students, families and communities can benefit for decades to come,” LaGrange said at a Calgary news conference.

The government will pay in future years to build the schools receiving design money, LaGrange said.

The Edgemont school in west Edmonton was Edmonton Public Schools’ No. 2 priority this year. In first place was a new Grade 7-12 school for 2,400 students in the Glenridding area. That project received design funds alone.

School board chair Trisha Estabrooks said Wednesday the need for more high school space is urgent. Projections suggest the division will have more teenagers enrolled than high school spaces by 2027.

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Reporters interview Edmonton public school board chair Trisha Estabrooks after the tabling of Alberta’s 2023-24 budget at the legislature on Feb. 28, 2023. (Janet French/CBC)

Province’s first charter hub

A news release Wednesday says the budget — which the legislature must still debate and vote on — will spend $171 million on charter school facilities over the next three years.

Some of that funding is for what’s called a charter school hub — a facility where several charter schools can run under one roof. The budget says it will accommodate up to 2,000 students.

Lisa Davis, who founded science, technology, engineering and math-focused charter schools in Edmonton and Calgary, said the STEM Innovation Academy in Calgary is among the charters hoping to work in such a hub.

Davis said parties are still working on a deal, and couldn’t confirm a timeline or location.

New or growing schools could share common gyms, labs, equipment, or even some staff, she said.

Students attending a hub school could also take classes offered by one of the other co-located schools, he said.

In an interview, LaGrange said finding adequate school space is one of the biggest challenges new charter schools face. They often lease older, surplus schools from public, Catholic and francophone divisions.

Davis said the hubs could make it easier for new charter schools to get going.

“I can assure you it’s quite intensive to start a new school,” Davis said.

The United Conservative Party government’s efforts to expand the charter system have critics, who say they shouldn’t be a priority while funding to the public, Catholic and francophone schools has not kept pace with enrollment growth and inflation.

Since the government lifted the provincial cap on charters, the 13 pre-existing charters have grown to 19 organizations that operate 34 schools.

LaGrange said the government earmarked money for charter schools because space constraints have left around 20,000 students on the waiting lists.

School funding freeze thaws

Public education advocates are warming to the budget’s proposed 4.2 per cent hike to the K-12 education budget.

EPSB chair Estabrooks said it’s been a frozen budget that has finally thawed.

“Where was this three years ago when we needed it?” she said on Tuesday at the legislature. “Where was this, when Edmonton public is continuing to grow at such a rapid rate?”

Although the education minister said school enrolments dipped across Alberta during the first two years of the pandemic, and she did not reduce funding, schools did not uniformly experience that trend.

The proposed $8.8-billion education budget includes a boost to each school authority’s base operating grant and a 10 per cent boost to the grant that helps students with unique needs, such as those with disabilities or English language learners.

The government will boost funding for the school nutrition program by 20 per cent to account for rising food costs.

There is also an extra $42 million per year provincewide to help schools cope with classes that include students with increasingly diverse needs.

The government is also changing how school transportation is funded.

Following recommendations from a task force, as of fall 2024, schools will be required to provide busing to elementary students who live more than one kilometer from school, and older students who are at least two kilometers away. Currently, they only receive provincial funding for bus students who live 2.4 km away.

Also new is funding for financing alternative school programs, and $12.5 million for private school financing and a fuel contingency. Private school transportation is funded at 70 per cent of the rate that public schools receive.

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Alberta Teachers’ Association president Jason Schilling says teachers may feel cynical when they see new investments in K-12 education just months ahead of a provincial election. (Janet French/CBC )

Alberta Teachers’ Association president Jason Schilling said more funding for growing enrolment and complex classrooms is a good start.

“Teachers will look at this budget with an air of cynicism. And I don’t blame them whatsoever, because I do as well. I know that this is an election year,” Schilling said of the May 29 fixed election date.

He pointed to StatsCan data on provincial education funding and student enrollment that suggests Alberta students received the least funding per capita of the 10 provinces in 2019-20.

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