All candidates chime in at ATA forum in Brooks

The 400-seat theatre at Griffin Park School in Brooks was over half-full and others tuned in by livestream for the ATA hosted candidate forum on education Tuesday night. All five candidates were present and seated in alphabetical order by surname, which is the order in which most of the questions were answered.

Bob Blayone of the Independence Party said by the second question he was going to sound like a broken record all night. His concerns are about the huge deficit in Alberta and asked more than once where the money was going to come from.

“You need more funding and you aren’t alone, everyone is asking. This over-reaction to that (COVID) has bankrupted us and further complicated the issue, the bottom line is we are in trouble economically,” said Blayone.

It wasn’t clear how he intended to fix the economic issue and the only area he was willing to put money into was mental health, a topic on which all the candidates agreed.

NDP candidate Gwendoline Dirk was clear in her belief that the educational crisis was all the fault of the UCP government, and reiterated several times the solution was restoring proper funding to schools, hiring back educational assistants fired during the pandemic, hiring more teachers, building new schools, restoring PUF funding, and smaller class sizes by cancelling the war room.

“If you don’t want some of the chaos and the broken promises of the UCP government, I think I’m the one that could have a seat at the table and I could fight for public education,” said Dirk.

Jeevan Mangat of the Wildrose Independence Party was concerned about infrastructure and wants a long-term capital plan to address the issue. Parent choice concerning the type of school their children attend is a key issue for him, stating funding must follow the child. Mangat wanted a return to the fundamentals, ensuring students are strong in math, English, biology and chemistry.

“Sometimes money is not the answer. You need to have a conversation on the inner workings of the school system and find out where the real problem is,” said Mangat.

Leader of the Alberta Party and former Mayor of Brooks Barry Morishita was a clear favourite with the audience.

“There is no more important investment Alberta can make than in its population than in its education. It’s the most important thing we can do,” said Morishita.

He believes the problem started 10 years ago or more, and talked about finding a new formula that is dynamic with the population in the classroom. Spending money where it is important and incorporating priority budgeting so core services, such as education, are always well funded, and not cutting off funding on Sept. 30 were also discussed.

“The government has not been paying attention to teachers themselves, we need to trust professionals to do their job and seek out their wisdom and advice when it comes to classroom management,” said Morishita.

Premier Danielle Smith assured the audience she was a friend of Alberta teachers and a position of mutual respect needs to be restored. She acknowledged the last few years were bumpy but with a new leader things would improve. She defended the Sept. 30 cut-off date and how much funding the UCP has given to schools, but did acknowledge a more flexible model needs to be looked at.

Fighting back against carbon taxes was something Smith discussed more than once. Her commitments to teachers remains unchanged, “Alberta’s economy is in strong fiscal shape, with the change in the royalties now applied to our oil sands companies we are going to have a long-term increase in revenues we receive, that gives us lots more flexibility.”

SAMANTHA JOHNSON, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Medicine Hat News