Four-day school scheme shows Tories view Fort McMurray as not much more than a work camp

Public School District students await dismissal for the week on a Thursday afternoon in Fort McMurray. Actual students may not be exactly as illustrated. Below: Edmonton-Calder NDP MLA David Eggen; former Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo MLA Guy Boutilier.

And where, the good people of Fort McMurray should be asking themselves today as Canadians scratch their heads at the idea of four-day school for children in the Alberta oil sands boom town, is Guy Boutilier now that they really need him?

Mr. Boutilier, as readers with long memories may recall, was the Conservative MLA for Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo who was kicked out of the Tory caucus in the summer of 2009 by then-premier Ed Stelmach for speaking up too vigorously on behalf of his constituents in the matter of a seniors’ home that was promised but never built.

Mr. Boutilier eventually joined the fledgling Wildrose Alliance, which was later to become the right-wing Opposition Wildrose Party.

Alas for him, in the 2012 provincial election, Fort Mac voters had the good sense – or so they thought at the time – to give the sometimes-erratic Harvard MBA graduate and former Ralph Klein cabinet minister the bum’s rush and replace him with a seemingly reliable Progressive Conservative.

Now another Alberta MLA, Edmonton-Calder New Democrat David Eggen, has with a single news release made the pathetic state of public education in Fort McMurray into a national news story. Indeed, it was top story on the Toronto Star’s website hours before the moribund local rag here in Edmonton managed to bestir itself and publish the news that the Fort McMurray Public School District is contemplating reducing its school week to four days to help pay off a projected deficit of $4.4 million.

Not noted in Mr. Eggen’s news release yesterday, but mentioned at his news conference, was the fact the Catholic school district in the northern town at the centre of Alberta’s current oil boom, the one that according to the governing PCs of Premier Alison Redford just went bust, is already operating on a four-day week!

So really, the Fort Mac public school board just trying to harmonize its school days with the academically disastrous but money saving schedule already adopted by its Catholic counterpart.

A significant part of the modest $800,000 to $1 million saved, by the way, would come out of the pockets of school teaching assistants and bus drivers, who would lose up to 20 per cent of their income and their pension because they won’t work enough days to qualify. In a high-pay locale like Fort Mac, many of them will simply walk away for better treatment at the local Tim Horton’s or wherever.

The cost of daycare and tutoring generated by this policy will be offloaded onto families.

In his revelation of the four-day school fiasco and the school district’s continuing financial troubles, Mr. Eggen played it as yet another example of continued PC underfunding of basic education in Alberta and the Redford Government’s recent history of broken promises.

Fair enough, and seeing as this all started well before Alberta’s boom went bust last month, exposure of this situation to the rest of Canada should be a huge embarrassment to the Redford PCs – if, that is, they are even capable of being embarrassed.

Mr. Eggen, who is the NDP’s Education Critic and a schoolteacher by profession, notes that, pedagogically speaking, the idea of having a long weekend every weekend is nearly catastrophic. Most students, he observed, would be permanently disengaged from school. Actually, the way he put it was: “It’s insane!”

It doesn’t stop in Fort McMurray, either. Many other underfunded Alberta school boards face a situation similar to the one in Fort Mac, so in Ms. Redford’s new age of austerity, it seems unlikely we have heard the last of four-day schooling for Alberta kids.

But the wellbeing of students – and especially students in Fort McMurray – seems to be the last thing in the mind of anyone connected with this government.

Fort McMurray was once seen as a great place to raise a family, and I am sure many citizens of that city work hard every day to keep it that way.

But the attitude of both the provincial and federal governments appears to be that it is simply a huge northern money pit, a mining camp best manned by temporary workers from far away – who can go back to where they came from and take their troubles with them when their best-before date has passed.

You doubt it? Only one new public school has been built in Fort McMurray in the past 26 years.

The highway to Edmonton is a death trap that the government is only slowly, slowly moving to upgrade.

As for the promised seniors’ home that Mr. Boutilier got kicked out of caucus for squawking about, well, it’s never been built either.

Judging from media coverage, there doesn’t seem to have been a peep about the four-day school week idea from the community’s PC MLA, Mike Allen. But then, maybe he’s working behind the scenes to rectify things.

Fort McMurray’s population of more than 60,000 is expected to double in the next 15 years or so.

But making the money pit those people will come to service a healthy place to grow up or grow old seems to be the last thing on this government’s agenda. They just treat it like a work camp.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

27 Comments on "Four-day school scheme shows Tories view Fort McMurray as not much more than a work camp"

  1. Bruce A says:

    Hate to say it but Alberta comes across as a province run by slack jawed yokels, who don’t care about anything that would resemble civilization. Not in my backyard! But as we all know, civilization comes with paying taxes and … oh, what’s the use? Military spending is just as good in the eyes of ‘true conservatives’ and it allows the unworthy to do something, provided they survive the colonial wars of the 21st century.

    Being a ‘goodtime Charlie’ and flying by the seat of your provincal pants is more fun than planning ahead by even a week. Peter Lougheed be damned. But the Heritage Fund was just sitting there and what do those goldarned Norwegians know anyway.

    Of course for the politicans with a libertrarian, Ayn Rand scam to sell, there’s always the ‘rugged individuals’ who think they’re the exception to the rule. That they’ll succeed because they’re destined to. Everyone else is a ‘taker’. As my parents observed, graduating from high school in Manitoba after the war was a big deal, that plenty of good people missed out on an education and what a waste of talent that was (excluding marketing business programs and admen, who convince us to do and think the dumbest things) but government is bad and it’s all the fault of enlightened public policy and education.

    I can’t help but think that Wildroser’s would be against sanitation, if they didn’t know better.

    As the ‘producers’ might say, those who can’t do, teach. Funny, but it’s those who don’t teach anything but greed, that lecture the rest of us about our selfishness.

  2. Lorna Tollman says:

    what a fantastic article and truer wiords were never spoken it is all about money mismanagement and nothing about students

  3. Barb Phillips says:

    I think the idea of a 4 -day school week being proposed and already at the vote level by school trustees in Fort Mac is just about the stupidest idea that the Conservatives have come up with in the last month or two.
    As a former teacher, I worked hard as a professional to get through the Alberta curriculum, and give my students the attention they need to prepare them for “the world out there” . It boggles my mind how this proposal would be anything but negative on our children’s education. If anything, I think our children should be in school more. We are already falling behind the rest of the world in fully preparing our children for their future. (Even Obama mentioned it in his recent State of the Union address.) So wow–they would save money on E.A. and bus driver’s salaries. Then parents are downloaded with the additional expense of more child care. Well I guess it just shows that in Alberta we don’t need a world class education according to the Conservatives. All our children can grow up and get a job in the good old oil patch without having the proper tools. It is Valentine’s Day today but I am feeling no love for the crazy Conservative ideas that they keep coming up with because of our so-called bitumen bubble.

  4. Paula says:

    Just to clarify, the Public School board in Fort McMurray currently runs with full day school Mon-Thur and 1/2 day Fridays, which both school boards ran with until last year. Edmonton also runs on a similar schedule. Last year the Catholic School board moved to a 4 day school week, with every second Friday being a full day. In essence there isn’t lost time in school. Also in Fort McMurray, our children start school in the last week of August, and go to school until the last week of June, and the days are from 8:05 until 2:50pm each full day.

  5. Ann Bonney says:

    Althought I appreciate the overall theme of this article, that Fort McMurray is once again being treated by the provincial government as nothing more then a money pit, I find a few of the claims stated here to be disturbing.
    A four day week is not “academically disastrous”. Teachers in the Catholic School System work very hard to ensure the same level of education that the rest of the province recieves. Are they expected to do more with less resouces? ABSOLUTELY! Do they do it? Well, I have to say I’ve seen some pretty amazing teachers in this district. By the way, my oldest daughter graduated from a Catholic High School in Fort McMurray last year. She currently attends University of Lethbridge along with several other students from the same school. To say the four day week is academically disastrous leads the reader to believe it’s causing the failure of ALL STUDENTS, which is untrue.

    “The cost of daycare and tutoring generated by this policy will be offloaded onto families.”

    Fair enough. This and has been an issue in the past. At Holy Trinity High School in Fort McMurray, our PLC (Professional Learning Community) Fridays are used as tutorial days. If a student is having issues with any subject, or has missed a test or an assignment, they can make arrangements to come in and get the extra help needed. My personal experience with teachers at this school has been that are willing to give their lunch hours and after school time to help their students succeed. Any tutoring outside of this should be the parents responsibility, as it has always been. Why do you think places like the Academy for Math and Science and Sylvan Learning Center exist? They were here LONG before the 4 day week.

    As for the daycare issue, the Catholic School Board operates “Out of School Care” programs which operate on PLC Fridays and before and after school. Extra hours are available to EA’s who wish to take advantage of them. This brings us to the claim:

    “… many of them will simply walk away for better treatment at the local Tim Horton’s or wherever.”

    Well, thats unfortunate but chances are those who leave over this were probably going to leave anyway. When the Catholic Board went with the 4 day model there was a lot of moaning and groaning and threats of leaving but most of those people stayed.

    I’m not saying that the 4 day model is the best thing for our students nor am I happy about any Government cutback to education in this province. I’m trying to say that the 4 day model will not harm every student out there, as your article would have us believe. It doesn’t lead to shoddy teaching practices and entire grade failures. There will ALWAYS be children who struggle regardless of the amount of days spent in school.

    • Lars says:

      Teachers in the Catholic School System work very hard to ensure the same level of education that the rest of the province recieves. Are they expected to do more with less resouces? ABSOLUTELY!

      Do you have any idea what it’s like to have to work harder and harder, year after year, for the same compensation? Because the people running the system for the alleged benefit of all are incapable of their jobs? This is like praising your horse for being able to maintain his time over the quarter mile, week after week, as you steadily decrease his feed because you blow every week’s income on the Lotto.

      • Ann Bonney says:

        Relax, Lars! I think you missed my point! Teachers here are like teachers everywhere, trying to get the job done with less and less support from the government. The teacers here are NOT getting less money because of the 4 day week. Our teachers just have the ADDED challenge of meeting the Government set standards in a sometimes compressed school week! I happen to think they are doing a fabulous job. My statement had NOTHING to do with compensation. I don’t know about other places but here teachers are on salary, not hourly employees. They still have to work the Fridays that there are no students.

  6. laura smette says:

    I think someone needs to look into HOW the Fort McMurray Public School Board suddenly discovered they were running a 4.4 million dollar deficit. It was originally 2 million and then suddently it was 4.4 million dollars. I would suggest that the problem is deeper than simply underfunding. The public schools are not bursting at the seams. Some schools are full, but many are not. The separate board does not have a 4.4 million dollar deficit and their students are on the four day system. NOT ALL FRIDAYS are off. Also, if you look at provincial exam results, on the whole the separate school board has better results for elementary provincial achievement exams. Is the problem underfunding or mismanagement by The Fort McMurray Public School Board. The separate school board had an 8% increase in students this year. The public school board had a decrease of students at the beginning of the school year. What is the reason for this? The questions need to be answered. It is expensive to do business in Fort McMurray, but the school boards receive extra funding for distance and sparsity. Someone needs to take a look at how the deficit occurred.

  7. Fort Mac Resident says:

    While it is absolutely true that the government is underfunding schools and not keeping up with upcoming demand for new schools in Fort McMurray, please check your facts!! The proposal to compress the school week does not actually change the number of instructional hours at all. There is a legislated number of hours that students must be in school. The current proposal is to take the current schedule, which includes 31 half-day Fridays for students, and change it to 16 full day Fridays and 15 Fridays off. Some weeks the students would be in school for 5 days. The 15 Fridays where students are not in classes are professional development and cooperative planning days for staff. While it is true that the board is talking about not having EA’s (educational assistants) in on those 15 Fridays, that does not equal a 20% loss in pay. That is 15 days out of a 200 or so day year, a 7.5% loss in paid time, not 20%. Fort McMurray suffers from enough misinformation in the media, please don’t compound the problem!

    • Fort Mac Resident makes a fair point about the issue of the number of instructional hours. I’m disinclined to feel guilty about missing this point, however. First, it appeared nowhere in the news coverage available early in the day yesterday. As I say repeatedly on this blog, I write commentaries on the news here, I don’t normally report it. So where were the spokespeople for the Fort Mac Public School District to correct this misimpression in the NDP news release and initial news reports? Where was the Alberta media? Second, Mr. Eggen’s basic point is not affected by this. Going to regular long weekends will have a disastrous impact on students’ ability to concentrate and do their schoolwork. I have worked as a university and technical school teacher myself and based on that experience I agree completely with that assessment. This is a foolish plan likely to hurt many students, notwithstanding the assertions of other commenters that teachers will work hard to overcome it. Of course they do, and will! But longer days followed regular long weekends will have a harmful impact on the quality of education in Fort Mac, and there’s no getting around that. I will take FM Resident’s assertion this is only a 7.5-per-cent cut in paid time under advisement and wait for a correction from the news professionals. I got that number from the news reports yesterday. But, really, so what? I don’t know about FM Resident, but a 7.5-per-cent pay cut would make me as angry as a 20-per-cent one. The fundamental point of this commentary is that the PC government of Alberta treats Fort McMurray like a work camp. I haven’t heard anything that suggests otherwise.

    • Ann Bonney says:

      Thank you! People seem to have the idea that a 4 day week will lead to a sub-standard educational system in Fort McMurray, which is simply not the case.

      • With respect to Ms. Bonney, it is said here the four-day school week in Fort McMurray will absolutely, categorically lead to a sub-standard educational system.This is not a slur on Fort McMurray’s teachers. I am certain they will do their best with whatever is thrown at them, as these dedicated public servants always do. But children will be more tired and less focused when they are in school, and will lose a larger portion of what they learned over their regular long weekends. Everyone’s jobs – students’ and teachers’ – will be more stressful. From a pedagogical standpoint, this is a foolish policy. More students will be lost to education as a result. And if it is not a scandal, it surely ought to be.

        • Ann Bonney says:

          Mr. Climenhaga, I have had my children in the Catholic system since kindergarten. We were there when the 4 day week was introduced. I can tell you that my children are not more stressed or more tired or less focused. With one now in University and another with an average in the 90′s I fail to see how you can say that we have sub-standard education. The Catholic system has been operating on the 4 day model for 2 years now. Our students are still graduating and still getting into GOOD universities. All your article has done is add fuel to the “bash Fort McMurray” fire.
          When my daughter got to university the other students, upon hearing that she and her friends were from Fort McMurray, thought they automatically knew three things about the kids from Fort McMurray; that they either had or wanted drugs , that all they wanted was to constantly party and that they all had more money then they knew what to do with. Do you have any idea how hard that is to overcome? Now they also have to deal with the profs thinking they’ve come from a sub-standard education system thanks to media articles such as this. Until there is actual proof that the 4 day model is harmful, perhaps it would be best to just leave this alone. In my experience it hasn’t been harmful at all.

          • Ms. Bonney: I think you give the four-day week too much credit and yourself too little. It is quite obvious to me – someone who doesn’t know you at all – that you are exactly the kind of parent who raises children to succeed in school and life. I’ll bet you read to your children when they were small, encouraged them to think creatively and filled their lives with learning opportunities. This is entirely to your credit, and it should be no surprise that such children do well in university and life, no matter what kind of curve balls the local school district throws at them. But you will never persuade me without evidence from a large number of students – including those who don’t enjoy the support your children had – that this proposed schedule change will not mean a decline in quality of public education in Fort McMurray. Read the comment by A Fort McMurray Teacher today, which I think goes to the heart of the matter. To suggest my commentary amounts to Fort McMurray bashing is preposterous. It is the opposite.

        • 2012 Graduate says:

          I am a graduate of the “academically disastrous” 4 day school week. I am absolutely offended by this article and disgusted at the assumptions that have been made in the comments. I have succeeded in school both socially and academically due to the support of the teachers and administration, NOT my parents. I am currently attending university and was awarded several scholarships for my academic success. I am not the only one that has had great success, my peers have as well and I believe that the education they received will continue to support their future academic endeavours. I was enrolled in high school when the 5 day school week was still in effect. During my senior year (the year the 4 day week was introduced), I noticed an overall improvement in not only my own acadmic performance but also the performance of my peers. It’s not as if, on the Fridays that we aren’t attending school, we are sitting at home doing absolutely nothing. Most Fridays, the high school offered tutorials during which students were able to come into the library where there were tutors abailable to help students with missed work or improve their understanding of previously taught concepts. Also, the tutorial Fridays allowed students to do rewrites or make up tests that had been previously administered. This allowed students to write the tests during a time that they would not miss class. Not only do the tutorial Fridays benefit the students, they benefit the teachers as well. The teachers no longer have to waste class time setting up a desk in the hallway, or in a seperate room for one or more students that had missed a test. The teacher is also able to continue instruction as normal and on time without having to worry about what students may be missing. I found that the long weekend gave us time to re-examine what we had been taught, as well as allowing us extra time to work individually with the material that had been presented to us in our classes. It allowed us to improve our critical thinking skills. The four day week did NOT make us more “tired”. If anything, we were re-energized and more prepared to return to class the following week than if we had been given a 5 day week. We did not lose any instructional time due to the fact that we started 10 minutes earlier and ended 15 minutes later than we had in previous years. Please, next time you make comments or write an article, get the perspectives needed to make an informed conclusion.

  8. Alex P says:

    Our Alberta politicians need to practice a bit of truth in advertising. Run on the slogan, Eat the future!

    It’s their reflexive position every time there is crisis. Usually, self-induced, and not hard to predict. (Look there, the premier is optimistic about something! Oops.)

  9. Mickster says:

    Guy Boutilier, lost his job because he himself mentioned that he only worked approx 4 hrs a day, bacause he wanted some personal time with his family, so who dosen’t. As far as the senior citizens upgrade, it never will be completed as the government knows people retire elsewhere, but was Guy’s platform for votes. I am not to sure who puts this plug in for Guy, but he is old school and didn,t do a whole lot for thye community. Mellisa Blake should run for MLA, she has lots of gas left in the tank and is a professional. I lived in Ft. Mac for 32 years, it will be the pinnacle of Alberta once the infastructure is completed. Highway 63 is not a bad highway at all, but the people who work long hrs then decide to race home, are the problems, as they are to tired to be driving in the 1st place. Hope you all have a great day!!! but this is my opinion.

  10. Public school parent says:

    Let me be clear, I am no Conservative supporter and I do feel that Fort McMurray has been ignored for too long, however, a bit of homework would have uncovered more than a government that has not adequately funded the Fort McMurray Public School District. At public meetings the superintendent, one of the highest paid in the province, was at a loss to explain why the defective had doubled, had no data to share with parents, and could not say exactly how much the savings by reducing the number of school days would be. How this leadership let our district get into such a deep mess needs to be explored. The previous superintendent was able to run the district effectively, champion a new school, and focus on students. The present superintendent has proven to be unable to manage, let alone lead the district and has driven quality staff and principals away. Check the number of school-based leaders who have resigned, taken leaves, or early retirement. Parents are angry and they should be!

  11. Lou Arab says:

    It is true that the number of instructional hours will remain the above the provincial standard, but that’s not the point.

    The point is the district has admitted that the compressed week is a means to reduce the hours paid to Educational Assistants – a key part of the classroom and a lifeline for special needs students.

    Eggen makes good points about the long weekend, and others above make the case for more hours but this issue is simple. Fewer EAs means fewer classroom resources, it means less support for special needs, and in turn, less time for the other kids as well.

    It is bad news for the state of education, period.

  12. Cheryl Cooper says:

    Edmonton and Calgary have always made it a point to slam Fort McMurray and other communities where their money comes from. The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo is progressive and they don’t like other places having innovative ideas. Way too bad they couldn’t attend Convergence YMM on Feb 12 and 13 along with the Premier. Looks like another innovation for RMWB. If you want to know about it feel free to google it. Love it!!!!

  13. A Fort McMurray Teacher says:

    Bottom line, the four day week is not what’s best for kids but it is what’s best for budget. Our province thinks having a flat income tax that only benefits the wealthy is more important than your child’s education.

    Public School Parent:

    The Superintendent was actually quite clear on where the money went.

    1. We have lost a lot of students to the Catholic board because only one new public schools has been built in the Timberlea area in the last 26 years. More students go to Catholic Schools than public Schools in Fort McMurray and over half of those students are not Catholic. We lost a million dollars worth of students who went from the Public Junior High (McTavish) to the Catholic High School (Trinity) across the street.
    2. When the government allegedly returned the $100 million in funding they changed the funding models and removed the relative cost of purchasing grant. This grant used to help northern communities like Fort McMurray pay for higher cost of doing business. Again that is about $1million dollars gone. This is the thing people in Fort McMurray should be the most angry about… where did that money go? it wasn’t to us. This is why the Catholic board went to 4 day weeks last year.
    3. The board knew they were going to be running a deficit as they were trying not to fire teachers/EAs. If that is mismanagement then fine.

    Now, I do think the Public board has more people working downtown than necessary but would think if they trimmed all the fat there would still be probably a $3 million deficit.

    • Starla Poole says:

      The latest superintendent of schools has increased the amount of central office staff and this costs more money. The benefits of this additional staff has not been proven – the Public Board is not showing the same growth in PAT scores as the Separate Board does. The board made a mistake in building a junior high in Timberlea when they definitely needed a K-8 school. The K to 8 system was not broken. Many people do not want to send their grade 7 and 8 students on the city bus all the way out to Timberlea from lower Thickwood. Parents can choose their schools and they have walked away from the Public Board for a number of reasons. Morale in the district is low and many wonderful staff have left the board because of the problems in the school district. Someone needs to look at the books of the Public School Board to see WHY there is such a deficit.

  14. Ann Bonney says:

    Why does no one remember that when the Catholic Board went to the four day model the Public Board also wanted to do the same? They were stopped by contract obligations with the support staff and parental pressure. At that time the support staff with the Public board had a national union behind them. The Catholic Board simply had an employee run bargaining association. Support staff for both boards are now covered by the same union. I’m pretty sure that the contracts for suppot staff with both boards is now in negotiations, as is the ATA. THAT is why this is all happening now. Sorry people, but this really isn’t anything new. It’s been coming for a while.

  15. Public Bd Education Assistant says:

    I would just like to comment on the person who stated that in fact the EA’s cut in pay won’t be 20%, but ONLY 7.5%. Seriously? Who do you think you are to decide that a 7.5% cut in pay (while you are already getting the lowest wages as District employees) is OK? I have been a school board employee in this district for almost 24 years and I am so appalled that the Govt of my Province is mostly responsible for this whole mess! How dare they decide thru the taking away of grants and $, that OUR children up here in the amazing city of Fort McMurray deserve to get robbed and must now go backwards by removing the only extra help some of them may ever get! They deserve to be successful and THEY will lose the most in the end! Shame on the Alberta govt!

  16. Public school parent says:

    A $2,000,000 deficit can be explained by the loss of the relative cost of purchasing grant and the need for schools in some areas. This does not explain the new $4.4 million deficit. With all due respect, the superintendent and his associates make some of the top salaries in the province in order to effectively lead the public school district. They are paid to adequately staff, be educational leaders, and steward the district’s budgets. An additional $4.4 million dollar deficit apparently unforeseen by these high paid professionals is unacceptable. This would not be acceptable in industry and it can’t be acceptable on the backs of our children. There is more going on here than meets the eye and parents have been asking for an investigation of this leadership since last June. See the Fort McMurray Today Opinion section June 2012. The board has allowed this superintendent to be asleep at the wheel. The district just lost another school based leader. This is now a total of 5 who have resigned, taken leaves or early retirement. It is time to investigate what is really going on at the public school district.

  17. Ann Bonney says:

    This is a quote from the National Post article about the 4 day week.

    “Fort McMurray’s Catholic board has about 5,200 students between Kindergarten and Grade 12. So far, Mr. Jenkins said the four-day week has had “no negative impact on our academics.” Fridays were only half-days before, anyway, and the remaining four days are now only about 20 minutes longer with the new schedule. In fact, Mr. Jenkins said Fort McMurray’s kids have more in-class time than provincial guidelines require.”

    It is also noted in the article that the half day Fridays have around a 15% drop in attendance due to sports trips and family weekends. Syncrude has Designated Days Off which always fall on a Friday and Suncor has Sunny Fridays. Families here use these days to leave town and take a break.

    Read the full article here:
    http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/02/18/fort-mcmurray-could-cut-school-week-down-to-just-four-days/

  18. Fort Mac Born & Raised says:

    “But the attitude of both the provincial and federal governments appears to be that it is simply a huge northern money pit, a mining camp best manned by temporary workers from far away – who can go back to where they came from and take their troubles with them when their best-before date has passed.”

    I believe the correct terminology is “urban service area.”

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