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Alberta's Former Government Made Empty Promises For New Schools: Auditor General

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ALISON REDFORD
Former Premier Alison Redford made empty promises to build schools, a report has found. | Jason Franson/CP
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EDMONTON — Alberta's auditor general says the former Progressive Conservative government's grand plan for 100 new schools was built on empty promises, administrative chaos, and almost no money.

Merwan Saher, in a report issued Tuesday, said Albertans during the era of former premiers Alison Redford and Jim Prentice were promised something that had little hope of succeeding.

"I believe the lessons for ministers are don't create false public expectations,'' Saher told reporters after filing his report to the legislature.

Saher was asked last fall by Rachel Notley's NDP government to investigate school construction under the previous two premiers after it announced there would be lengthy delays in 101 Tory-announced school projects.

"Don't create false public expectations."

In the decade prior to 2011 the province was building on average 18 schools a year, Saher said.

All changed under Redford's government when it promised 50 new schools in 2012, but also introduced organizational changes that sowed confusion between the Education and Infrastructure departments with no clear hierarchy of authority, the auditor general said.

"No one was responsible for overall results,'' Saher wrote.

Administrative chaos

Bureaucrats couldn't give ministers the correct information because no one had the full picture, he said.

As a result, he wrote, "ministers made public commitments and announced completion dates without evidence those dates were reasonably attainable.''

Redford resigned as premier in March 2014 in a scandal over lavish spending on herself and inner circle.

She was replaced by Prentice whose government announced another 55 new schools.

Funding 'non-existent' under Prentice

But Saher said the funding in the budget for the schools was unclear under Redford and all but non-existent under Prentice.

Saher has recommended changes to ensure tighter controls and clear accounting on school projects.

Education Minister David Eggen said his government is working to implement all the recommendations, and said the schools are getting built.

He said 20 new schools housing 19,000 new students, plus 20 school modernizations, will be ready for the 2016-17 school year.

"No one was responsible."

Eggen said the PCs, faced with a critical shortage of schools and falling popularity in the polls, rashly promised new schools without regard for money or planning.

"We've combed through to make sure that we actually need those schools, and we're building those schools that we need in a much more realistic, honest and expeditious way,'' said Eggen.

The Progressive Conservatives were trounced in last May's election and are now the third party in the legislature.

PCs respond to findings

PC Infrastructure critic Wayne Drysdale said the caucus accepts the recommendations in Saher's report.

Drysdale, in a news release, said growth pressures forced the former PC government to lay out an ambitious plan to build schools.

"At every step along the way, we trusted our department staff when they told us that they could meet these targets,'' wrote Drysdale.

"We admit we pushed these dedicated public servants to the limit in an effort to deliver the most ambitious school build in Canadian history.

"And while the program certainly wasn't perfect, we were all working with the best interests of Alberta families in mind.''

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