POLITICS
10/12/2011 06:05 EDT | Updated 12/12/2011 05:12 EST

Alberta Treasury Board votes to restore $107 million in education funding

EDMONTON - Alberta Premier Alison Redford returned $107 million to school boards Wednesday, delivering on a campaign promise believed to have turned the tide in the recent political leadership race.

"This will make an impact in the lives of parents, families and children," Redford told a news conference at Government House after a meeting of Treasury Board approved the spending.

"This is part of what a new government looks like. This is a government that is listening to Albertans, listening to Alberta families, and talking about the values that matter to Albertans."

Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk said the $107 million will be found from savings within other departments and will be delivered within days to 62 publicly funded school boards to use as they see fit to make changes to front-line education.

"Even though the dollars will be targeted on making sure they end up in the classroom and students will be feeling the difference, the school boards in themselves will have the ability to prioritize the dollars to identify the pressure spots," said Lukaszuk.

Political observers say the commitment, put in writing by Redford in a letter to teachers late in the campaign, was a master stroke political move that led to her surprising upset defeat of Gary Mar in the Progressive Conservative party leadership race to replace former premier Ed Stelmach.

Redford, a Calgary lawyer, came from a distant second place on the first ballot to deliver a knockout blow to Mar on the final round of balloting on Oct. 1. The difference was believed to be thousands of parents, teachers and education supporters who bought $5 party memberships to reverse a government decision on education derided as petty and shortsighted.

Stelmach's government had actually hiked education spending by five per cent in the current budget year, but school boards were still forced to axe teacher jobs and programs this spring to cover off higher teacher salaries under a collective agreement brokered by the province.

The Alberta Teachers' Association estimated that 1,000 teaching jobs would be lost.

Stelmach inflamed matters in May when he criticized teachers for accepting the money they had bargained for in good faith. Stelmach said they had tried to get the teachers association to reduce or freeze the salaries.

His comments allowed critics to broaden the debate, and tee off on the credibility of a government they said always stands by a deal unless the deal is not in its favour. It became an issue on the leadership campaign, with many of the candidates promising to live up to any deals they sign.

"There's no doubt that some of the decisions that were made earlier this year with respect to funding were unfortunate," Redford said Wednesday without elaborating.

Jacquie Hansen, president of the Alberta School Boards Association, said she was "delighted" with the announcement.

"It's a long time coming in what we've been advocating for," said Hansen.

"We look forward to working with (Redford's) new government and continuing the talks on providing predictable, sustainable funding."

Redford also committed to funding the department in three-year cycles so that educators can make better long-term decisions in her letter to teachers.

Hansen said she could understand why the money was taken away originally.

"We recognize the previous premier was trying to balance a budget and we recognize all ministries were asked to play a part in controlling budgetary costs. But it was unfortunate because there were programs that were lost to the funding formula," she said.

Ron Liepert, the new finance minister, suggested it was strange for Stelmach to wage a damaging political public relations battle for what was, in dollar terms, peanuts.

"In a $38 billion budget, ($107 million) is almost rounding numbers," said Liepert, minutes after being sworn into his new job earlier Wednesday.

"We have to do a better job of ensuring that the budget we deliver in the spring of 2012 has ensured those kinds of things don't happen."