04/20/2015 05:39 EDT | Updated 07/11/2015 03:59 EDT

Alberta education minister fires back at school boards, says they have savings

EDMONTON - Alberta's education minister stepped off the election campaign trail Monday to fire back at school boards who condemned cuts in the proposed budget as a recipe for front-line dysfunction.

Gordon Dirks said that school boards have $460 million amassed in their savings accounts and need to step up to fill in any gaps in funding.

"These are school boards, not school banks," said Dirks, who spoke to reporters in Calgary.

"This year my department reduced its operating budget by nine per cent and directed these savings to the front lines.

"I’ve been clear all along that school boards will be permitted to use their reserve funds if needed to meet front-line service needs in the coming fiscal year while they find savings in non-teacher costs."

Dirks responded after 19 school boards from across Alberta representing two-thirds of all students issued a statement earlier Monday saying the cuts create an intolerable and ultimately self-defeating situation.

The boards said there is no plan to deal with the 12,000 extra students coming into the system in each of the next three years.

"The effect on education cannot be underestimated," said the boards, which include the public and Catholic boards in Edmonton and Calgary.

"Growing districts will be forced to make reductions to support services to schools while ultimately increasing teacher workload and at the same time, reducing the support for some of our most vulnerable students."

Mark Ramsankar, head of the Alberta Teachers' Association, said school boards face a "double whammy" of more students and a 2.7 per cent cut in budgets.

"With the growth not being supported, we're not going to be able to sustain the direction we're going," said Ramsankar.

Debbie Engel, chair of Edmonton's Catholic School board, told a news conference, "We are going to see some very devastating changes if we do not fund for new enrolment."

The budget is the focus of the election campaign, which will see voters go to the polls on May 5.

Conservative Leader Jim Prentice has said he needs a mandate to implement the budget, which calls for service cuts and sweeping tax hikes to pay for revenue shortfalls brought on by low oil prices.

Prentice has also put forward a long-term plan he says will insulate day-to-day spending from swings in oil prices.

Also Monday, Wildrose Leader Brian Jean announced his government would institute wait-time guarantees for five procedures as the first step in fixing what he called a broken system that overcharges and under delivers.

He said if the current health system can't meet the wait times, the province will rely on private clinics, with costs for insured services covered by government.

"Albertans expect their health-care system to be there for them when they need it," said Jean.

If necessary, patients will go to other provinces or abroad to get the procedure within the allotted time, with only the equivalent cost of the procedure covered by the province.

Health Minister Stephen Mandel said that amounts a two-tiered health system.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley said her party would do away with proposed Tory fee hikes to mortgages, land transfers, and land title registry searches.

Notley called the hikes unfair to home buyers.