Calgary school board staff's $15K New Zealand trip questioned

Calgary's public school board says a $15,000 trip to attend a conference on thinking in New Zealand for its chief superintendant Naomi Johnson and two staff members was worth it.

Canadian Taxpayers Federation calls the trip to a thinking conference in January a waste of money

Calgary's public school board is defending its decision to send three people to a conference in New Zealand at a cost of $15,000 to taxpayers. 2:09

Calgary's public school board says a $15,000 trip to New Zealand for its chief superintendant Naomi Johnson and two staff members was worth it.

The January trip was to the five-day International Conference on Thinking, and cost roughly $5,000 for each person.

Johnson also spent some time in the country on vacation, but her costs were only covered for the five days she was attending the conference.

The expenses were posted on the Calgary Board of Education's website earlier this week, which is part of a two-month disclosure of spending by the board's top bureaucrats and trustees.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation calls it a waste of money and says the funds should have been spent on students in the classroom.

"It's thinly-veiled free vacation to go to New Zealand," said Derek Fildebrandt, the Alberta director of the taxpayers federation.

He said the conference was little more than a "glorified motivational speakers conference."

School board faces budget pressures

"It's nothing directly to do with education, it's just about thinking outside the box and thinking more boldy — something I'm pretty sure you could find on this side of the planet," said Fildebrandt.

He says the trip was irresponsible when the school board is facing huge budget pressures this year.

But Calgary Board of Education spokesperson Megan Geyer says the conference will help improve education in Calgary.

"These are trying budget times for us and we have had to make lots of cuts, but it is important that our senior leaders continue to learn and stay relevant in order to provide the very best educational system for our students," she said. 

"So in order for our students to succeed we need to keep learning."

Geyer says the board got a chance to learn how New Zealand tailors its curriculum to its indigneous population, and that is something the CBE can implement for the local aboriginal population.

Trustee questions expense approvals

A Calgary public school board trustee says there is not enough transparency when it comes to the approval of expenses for the chief superintendent.

Board Chair Pat Cochrane approved Johnson's trip to New Zealand without consulting other board members.

Sheila Taylor says that's wrong because trustees are elected representatives who have to answer to taxpayers.

"It is important that we have all of our eyes on what's going on," she said. "And at times like these when there's a lot of public scrutiny — warranted public scrutiny on spending — I want to be able to represent my communities and say I know what's going on, I have my eye on things, and that I am a part of that vote that allows or does not allow these expenses to go through."

Taylor says the board's policies state that no trustee can act alone, and the board must act as a unit.

The CBE says if trustees want the current approval process to change, they should bring it up with the board.

But Taylor says she has brought up the subject several times.

Taylor's November letter to the board: