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

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

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 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 Mr. 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."

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Mr. 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.

"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," he said.

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.

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