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Calgary student activists to MLA Doug Schweitzer: Education cuts or not?

Calgary-Elbow students are still pushing for clarity on Alberta’s education budget after speaking with their MLA, Doug Schweitzer.

Led by 11-year old Nora Vukadinovic, eight other students from Elboya School, William Reid School, Altadore School and Mount Royal School spoke with MLA Doug Schweitzer via Zoom on Aug. 21 to address continued concern about education spending.

This included what they see as conflicting statements released by the UCP government regarding the public education budget. 

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During a protest organized by Nora on July 10 called March for Education, Minister of Education Adriana Lagrange issued statements to the media saying the CBE is receiving an increase of more than $20 million.

According to the budget released in March, the CBE acknowledges the $20.6 million in additional funding from the province. It says, however, that after being adjusted for the Regional Collaborative Delivery Model, the additional cash amounts to only $14 million.

“While funding has increased from the 2019-20 level, it remains approximately $18.5 million lower than the funding provided in the 2018-19 school year,” the CBE budget document states.

“Over the same period, student enrollment has increased by approximately 5,300 students and the CBE will be operating three new schools.”

That’s where the questions come in.

“Which is it? Has the Government of Alberta cut the public education budget or increased it? It can’t be both,” the group said in a statement released on Aug. 13.

A meeting two years in the making

Nora checking if MLA Schweitzer is in his office on July 10, 2020, the day she held the March for Education. (Photo submitted).

In response to the education march, MLA Schweitzer’s office arranged a 30-minute online meeting with the students. It’s a meeting the parents say is long overdue.

“The parents have been asking MLA Schweitzer to come and talk to us since May of 2018 – long before this year’s budget or COVID 19 was an issue. They kept telling us they could send someone else from his office,” said Susan Vukadinovic, Nora’s mother.

“But we wanted our MLA to come in person.” 

In addition to seeking stronger efforts and transparency from the UCP government, parents and students are wondering how issues like overcrowded classrooms can be resolved with a smaller education budget during a global pandemic.

Schweitzer said that while the CBE’s “rainy day funds” will be accessed to assist with additional costs related to COVID 19, there are limited resources to go around.

“The reality is that the number of teachers and schools needed to have smaller classroom sizes simply don’t exist,” Schweitzer said to the students.

The kids aren’t alright

Nora’s mom, Susan, helping Nora keep MLA Schweitzer on track during their Zoom meeting on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020. (Photo by Bree Tresoor)

During the Zoom meeting, Nora addressed MLA Schweizer saying his office’s lack of response in the past. That, combined with conflicting information from the UCP government have left students and parents feeling confused.

“You have issued statements claiming you are directing as many dollars as possible towards classrooms, but the truth is that you and your government are slashing education funding,” Nora said. 

“There is a growing number of kids realizing you haven’t been honest with us.”

When asked if he would be willing to personally meet with parents, Schweitzer said several town hall meetings were held pre-pandemic. He reiterated that his staff are available to speak with parents when he cannot be available. 

“We get hundreds of emails every day. I’ve personally taken around 60 phone calls from parents about education concerns,” he said.

“We try to make ourselves available, and answer almost every request.”

Schweitzer said the economic fallout due to COVID 19 will have long-lasting effects on every sector of the province. Not just public education.

“We’re looking at a $20-25 billion dollar deficit in operation funds this year alone. We have some very difficult financial decisions to make as a province,” he said.

“It’s not a pretty picture.”

Concerns addressed?

After the meeting, Nora said that despite being able to speak to MLA Schweitzer one-on-one, she didn’t feel that any of her concerns were directly addressed. 

“I realize that he deals more with the financial side of things and that this was just a conversation. It felt like he kept talking around the issues I was bringing up,” Nora said.

“But I guess that’s just what politicians do.”

Schweitzer’s office could not be reached for further comment.