Alberta’s education budget features the new school and its successor, the first charter school center

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

Minister Adriana LaGrange on Wednesday unveiled a list of 58 projects across the province that will receive either a construction grant, a design grant, or some seed money to start planning.

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

“We are securing the future for young Alberta and their families by investing in new schools and modern spaces, so students, families and communities can benefit for decades to come,” LaGrange said at a press conference in Calgary.

The government will pay in coming years to build the school by accepting design money, said LaGrange.

Edgemont School in west Edmonton is priority No. 2 Edmonton Public Schools this year. First place is a new school grades 7-12 for 2,400 students in the Glenridding area. The project only received design funding.

School board chair Trisha Estabrooks said Wednesday the need for more high school space was urgent. Projections show the division will have more youth enrolled than high school halls by 2027.

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Journalists interview Edmonton public school board chairman Trisha Estabrooks following Alberta’s 2023-24 budget submission in the legislature on February 28, 2023. (Janet France/CBC)

The province’s first charter hub

Wednesday’s news release said the budget – which remains to be debated and voted on by the legislature – would spend $171 million on charter school facilities over the next three years.

Part of that funding goes to so-called charter school centers – a facility where several charter schools can operate under one roof. The budget says it will accommodate up to 2,000 students.

Lisa Davis, who founded charter schools focused on science, technology, engineering, and math in Edmonton and Calgary, says Calgary’s STEM Innovation Academy is one charter that looks forward to working in such a center.

Davis said the parties were still working on a deal, and could not confirm a timeline or location.

New or growing schools may share gyms, labs, equipment or even some staff, he says.

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

In an interview, LaGrange said finding adequate school space was one of the biggest challenges new charter schools faced. They often rented the older and surplus schools of the general, Catholic, and French-speaking divisions.

Davis says hubs can make it easier for new charter schools to get started.

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

Efforts by the United Conservative Party government to expand the charter system have been criticized, who say it should not be a priority while funding for public, Catholic and French-language schools has not kept pace with enrollment growth and inflation.

Since the government lifted the ceiling on provincial charters, the 13 pre-existing charters have grown into 19 organizations operating 34 schools.

LaGrange said the government allocated money for rented schools because space constraints had left about 20,000 students on a waiting list.

The frozen school funds are melting

Public education advocates welcomed the proposed 4.2 percent increase in the K-12 education budget.

EPSB chairman Estabrooks said it was a frozen budget that was finally thawed.

“Where was this three years ago when we needed it?” he said Tuesday in the legislature. “Where is it, when the Edmonton public continues to grow at such a fast pace?”

Although the education minister said school enrollment declined in Alberta during the first two years of the pandemic, and he did not reduce funding, schools have not uniformly experienced that trend.

The proposed $8.8 billion education budget includes an increase to each school authority’s basic operations grant and a 10 percent increase to grants that assist students with unique needs, such as those with disabilities or English learners.

The government will increase funding for the school nutrition program by 20 percent to account for rising food costs.

There is also an additional $42 million per year across the province to help schools cope with classes that include students with increasingly diverse needs.

The government also changed the way school transportation is financed.

Following the recommendations of the task force, starting fall 2024, schools will be required to provide buses for primary students who live more than one kilometer from the 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 an alternative bus to school program, and $12.5 million for private school buses and fuel reserves. Private school transport is funded at 70 percent of the fare that public schools receive.

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Alberta Teachers’ Association President Jason Schilling said teachers may feel cynical when they see new investments in K-12 education just months ahead of provincial elections. (Janet France/CBC )

Alberta Teachers’ Association President Jason Schilling said more funding to increase enrollment and complex classrooms was a good start.

“Teachers are going to look at this budget with cynicism. And I don’t blame them one bit, because I did too. I know it’s an election year,” Schilling said of the May 29 fixed election date.

He points to StatsCan data on provincial education funding and student enrollment showing Alberta students received the fewest per capita funding out of the 10 provinces in 2019-20.