Alberta Education minister Adriana LaGrange says her department will work closely with Rocky View Schools (RVS) officials to complete the necessary steps to ensure construction gets underway on the four new schools approved in the division, which includes two in Cochrane.

In an interview with Cochrane Now, LaGrange spoke about her meeting with RVS officials yesterday, and her commitment to moving quickly on bringing new schools on stream, among other topics.

"We will work very closely with them," said LaGrange, "In fact, I met with Rocky View School Division this morning (Mar. 9) to confirm the commitment to move their construction projects forward when they're ready to move to that stage. So I was very clear that the four schools that they have been announced--out of 58 that we announced just the other week--that all four of those means that they're of the highest priority for government and they will be built."

Even before the field was narrowed to 58 projects, they reviewed 377 priorities of the province's school authorities and went through a detailed 10-step audited approved process to evaluate all the projects and place them on a spectrum.

She believes the new process provides school jurisdictions with a more transparent and open approach to understanding where they fit into the government's priorities and to help ensure that all the pre-work work is done in a timely and efficient manner.

They've taken a step back from the tradition of announcing the approval of 15 to 20 new schools in the spring. Instead, the school approval process has been broken into four categories: full construction funding, design funding, school planning program projects, and pre-planning program projects.

One new Cochrane school was included as a pre-planning project and could be either a K-5 or K-8.

"What I've committed and my department has committed to Rocky View is that they're going to continue to work with the school division to confirm the site and project readiness of all of these projects and we will help them along the process."

A new K-5 school in Cochrane is Rocky View Schools' second highest priority, and a K-8 is ranked seventh. Another K-8 is priority 10.

Rocky View Schools lists the Cochrane K-5 site as shovel-ready and expects the first K-8 site to be ready this year.

LaGrange says nothing is preventing the projects from moving ahead quickly if all the boxes are checked off.

"You don't have to go through every step to get to the last step, but you do have to make sure that all of that work is done."

She said when new school approvals were announced in the past, some projects took three to five years to complete because the pre-work hadn't been completed. 

"With this announcement and the way that we're approaching school builds now, all of that can be done, and it can be accelerated. We could have a school built in 18 to 24 months. Sometimes it takes 30 months for a high school, but the average time could be reduced to 18 to 24, and that's the exciting part of having this new process.

"I know it takes some time to get used to something different, but that was something that I was sharing with Rocky View. It's about really accelerating the process, streamlining it, getting the barriers out of the way, and ensuring that school authorities are able to take advantage of this investment because now they know they have four schools that are moving, we hope, very quickly through the process to full construction."

LaGrange says they understand the impact of growing class sizes and the overutilization of schools being experienced here and it's why they intend to move quickly on the construction of new schools.

"Since 2019, our government has invested in a total of six new school projects for Rocky View School Division that's going to create 6,625 new and modernized spaces as soon as possible, so I really want parents to know that we want to see these schools built for Rocky View in those communities as quickly as possible so that the students, the parents, the teachers, the whole community can celebrate and have our students learning in updated, positive, and good school environments."

Until those schools are constructed, part of the solution is providing modulars to accommodate more classroom space. She had no specifics at this point as to how many will be allocated to RVS.

In the fall, RVS requested 32 modular, including two for the École Manachaban Middle School and two for Cochrane High (there are limited options for the placement of modular on schools here). Last year, 18 were requested division-wide but none were approved.

LaGrange says her modular budget has increased from around $25 million to $47 million, but there have been other challenges to overcome.

"Two years ago, I announced the largest modular budget ever for the province of Alberta and that was $89 million, and so that was more than triple what we usually allocate for modulars. But then we ran into supply chain and work staff issues with the modular companies themselves. So we are looking at that. I don't have specifically what Rocky View will be getting just yet. Those decisions have not been finalized yet, but we will continue to work with Rocky View and all school authorities across the province to meet their needs."

Additionally, she says school divisions, including RVS, will have access to additional operational funds from the $1.8 billion increase in education operational funds over the next three years. The budget is $8.4 billion this year, $8.8 billion next year, and $9 billion the year after.

"Proportionally, Rocky View will benefit from those additional dollars, which will help them make decisions that will benefit their schools and help ease some of the stress."

LaGrange says RVS received a 9.7 per cent increase in their overall operational funding she's confident they'll use for the betterment of their students. 

When the new school approvals were announced, Rocky View School officials expressed disappointment. In advance of the budget address, they released a video entitled "Space for Students - How Can You Help?" to press home the urgent need for more schools.