EDMONTON - Alberta's New Democrats say a proposal to cram five teaching days into four each week at public schools in Fort McMurray is proof positive the province is short-changing education.

"If we can expect Fort McMurray ... to do something like this, Albertans should be concerned this might be an option in other centres," NDP critic Dave Eggen told a legislature news conference Wednesday.

"Without adequate funding for public education, it could be coming to a school board near you."

Eggen said the Fort McMurray plan would penalize the paycheques of bus drivers and teaching aides by cutting their hours, force parents to scramble to find extra child care and potentially affect the education of the students themselves.

Dennis Parsons, superintendent for Fort McMurray Public School District, confirmed that the four-day week is one option as the district works to eradicate a $4.4-million budget deficit this year.

Parsons says about three-quarters of that amount will be covered off by making operations leaner and using savings, but he said that won't go far enough.

"We're between a little bit of a rock and a hard place in the sense that we're running deficits on the year and the deficits are not sustainable," said Parsons in an interview.

The board is to consider the four-day option Tuesday. Parsons said parents have already told him it's a bad idea because of child-care issues and disruption to students who would spend three days out of seven outside of the school environment.

"Overwhelmingly people have said, no, they don't want to go there."

The deficit arose from a number of problems, including restructuring of provincial grant money coupled with the explosive growth pressures on the oilsands hub city, Parsons explained.

"In the last 26 years we've opened one new school," he said. "There is another one under construction, but it won't open until 2014.

"But we needed five or six schools built in that period of time, not one."

If the four-day plan is adopted, Fort McMurray's public schools would still meet the number of annual hours of instruction mandated by the province, said Parsons.

He said the schools already run a bit longer than necessary. That, along with changes to teacher professional development days, would add at most 11 minutes to a school day.

Kim Capstick, spokeswoman for Education Minister Jeff Johnson, said the province sets targets but gives boards flexibility on implementation.

"We have school boards across the province that run on all sorts of different calendars, and as long as the hours of instruction for kids are met, we're quite comfortable with what works for a community," said Capstick.

The separate school system in Fort McMurray already runs on a four-day week.

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