Alberta’s Catholic community is sharing in the anxiety over the UCP government’s 2020 budget.
Thousands marched on the Alberta legislature grounds on Feb. 27 to protest the budget, angered and anxious over what cuts and job losses lie in the province’s future. According to the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the budget plan could mean the loss of 1,430 public sector jobs just in the next year, and an estimated 16,000 over four years, with many of those in education and health care.
“We have to send a message that we as Catholics are part of an outstanding publicly funded school system,” said Sandra Haltiner, a teacher at Mother Margaret Mary High School and president of Edmonton Catholic Teachers Local 54.
Haltiner marched alongside more than 2,000 other teachers at the protest.
“The Catholic school division is a key part of how we build a sense of community. My siblings and I went to Catholic schools, and I value that we are a part of that public system,” she said.
“There’s a lot of unknown right now, but going into this budget I can see that our resources, workload, class sizes, and the funding available for new students are going to be seriously affected.”
Despite campaign promises of growth in education, the province’s Catholic and public schools will be funded at $8.2 billion, equal to the former NDP government’s spending in 2019.
“Maintaining that same budget does not account for new students, and this is the same as taking a loss,” said Haltiner. “Edmonton Catholic is a fast growing division, and there are as many as 16,000 students entering public schools in Alberta next year. Going forward, there will be less money and the division will have to make difficult decisions. It’s unfortunate; Catholic education is here for the betterment of society and now we may have to make decisions that gravely hinder that.”
The budget also calls for schools to raise an additional $100 million in their own funding this year ̶ a number that has many representatives worried.
Lisa Turchansky, a trustee with Edmonton Catholic Schools, says the division is currently looking at how they can cut costs and increase funding out of their own pocket. The division wants to avoid job losses, but cuts will be necessary.
“Our senior leadership team is hard at work right now to find different areas we can make cuts and manage differently,” said Turchansky. “We were hoping for more funding, but this government was elected with a mandate for fiscal restraint and trimming the budget. We know we’re at a bit of a shortfall and there will be some needed changes and trimming going forward.
“We’d hate to see any job losses. Our priority is always ensure our teachers and staff are in the classroom with our kids.”
Edmonton Catholic Schools was able to prevent any job losses last year.
Sarah Hoffman, the NDP education critic, believes the schools will have no other choice but to load those additional costs onto parents.
Haltiner agrees that increased fees for parents is a likely outcome from this budget.
“A school’s main funding source for its own revenue will be parents, and this basically tell parents to pony up to pay more,” said Hoffman. “Maybe it’s possible they can squeeze more fees out of parents and meet that additional $100 million, but I don’t think it’s the ethical thing to do.”
As Haltiner waits what to see what future holds for her and her fellow Catholic school teachers, she says faith has been a source of hope during this time.
“I hope the government is listening and things do change, because I’m not sure how much more can come out of the public sector before future generations are seriously hurt.”
Post-secondary institutions are also feeling the uncertainty. To meet a 6.3-per-cent decrease in provincial funding, 300 positions were cut across the province’s colleges and universities last year.
With total spending for Advanced Education dropping to $5.1 billion from $5.5 billion, an additional 398 jobs are expected to be cut this year.
The budget also introduced a new “performance-based” funding model for post-secondary institutions. Under this new model the amount of public funding available to schools will be measured by the quality of research they do and the number of graduates who become employed in their field. The model will be implemented gradually over the next three years.
The NDP’s advanced education critic, David Eggen, calls it a way of punishing universities. It may particularly hurt St. Joseph’s College, the Catholic college at the University of Alberta, which is more focused on research than setting up its students with jobs.
“It could mean quite significant cuts if your graduates are not producing a certain income,” he said. “That could take away a lot of the choice we have in education.”
However, Laurie Chandler, press secretary to Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides, said that when this performance-based model is fully implemented, its criteria will differ for universities that specialize in research.
“The University of Alberta is a great research institution, so their weight on this criteria will be strongly based around the quality and capacity of their research,” she said.
“That consideration of labour market outcome is still there, but we understand fully that the point of going to post-secondary education is not just to get a job.”
St. Joseph’s College receives its public funding directly from the University of Alberta. A representative from the college was not immediately available for comment.
The fear of cuts, wage freezes and job losses has been particularly high in the province’s health-care sector. A government-commissioned report on Alberta Health Services, released on Feb. 3, called for cuts up to $2 billion to AHS. While this is yet to be implemented, the 2020 budget notes that the government is still reviewing the report’s recommendations.
Covenant Health contracts with AHS to operate 16 Catholic hospitals and health-care facilities across the province.
“We’ve been working closely with AHS and the Minister of Health and we’ve had several discussions on that review,” Ed Stelmach, former premier and current board chair for Covenant Health. “We wait to see how it will be implemented.”
It has brought a lot of worries about the future for Tayana Beltran, a nurse at the Grey Nuns Hospital in Edmonton.
“Here at Grey Nuns a lot of the people are worried about their jobs, especially the newer nurses. They feel they’ll be the first to go,” said Beltran, who has worked at the hospital for 13 years.
“We will for sure see pay cuts. We are noticing already that when people retire their positions are not filled, we’re not getting as much overtime, and we’re shorter staffed in general.”
The 2020 budget brought a slight increase ̶ 0.3 per cent ̶ in overall funding to health care at $20.8 billion. Hospitals in Edmonton and northern Alberta will also get an additional $15 million to upgrade laboratory equipment.
Stelmach said that these equipment upgrades are particularly needed at Covenant Health facilities.
Catholic Social Services said it is studying the budget to determine its impact on the agency.
Clarification: The story has been updated to reflect the estimated job losses over four years, not just a single year, as a result of the budget.