5 things to know about Calgary's public school board

The Calgary Board of Education has been in the news recently, including over issues around larger class sizes. The CBC's education reporter Elizabeth Snaddon lays out five issues that school board is dealing with ahead of the Oct. 21 election.

What to think about ahead of the Oct. 21 civic election

The Calgary Board of Education is run by elected trustees who plan for their own jurisdiction, set priorities based on community needs, hire and evaluate the superintendent and adopt an annual budget. (CBC)

The Calgary Board of Education has been in the news recently, including over issues around larger class sizes.

The CBC's education reporter Elizabeth Snaddon lays out five issues the school board is dealing with ahead of the Oct. 21 election. 

1. Budget cuts

The provincial government provides the funding for the education. Leading up to the March 2013 provincial budget, the Calgary Board of Education had been expecting predictable, sustainable funding after some election promises from Premier Alison Redford, so it could plan ahead. But in Alberta, government revenues are tied to oil and gas prices. As a result, funding fluctuates.

The CBE was instead forced to deal with a $62 million shortfall. To balance its 2013-14 budget, the CBE cut the per-student allocation for high schools by 11 per cent. The result is larger class sizes.

Sheila Taylor says she's hearing a lot about the size of classes as she knocks on doors. Taylor is running for re-election as trustee for the public school board.

"Parents are wondering if their children are going to get a good education when they're sitting in classes of well over 30 students for core classes like social studies and math."

2. Transparency

Transparency is the buzz word many candidates are using this election campaign. They are calling for more openness when it comes to decision-making.

In early 2012, board members voted to adopt a new governance model. In a five-to-two vote, trustees gave administration the power to make decisions on busing, money for schools, and other "big ticket" expenditures. As a result, the CBE's latest budget only had five line items. That's despite a budget of close to $1.2 billion.

Also, trustees can no longer bring up motions unless they get prior approval by a majority of the board.

Trina Hurdman, a candidate in wards 6 and 7, has been a vocal critic of the public school board.

"There wasn't the level of oversight that I would like to see at the board level,” said Hurdman.

“I found that there wasn't adequate planning going on, there wasn't an acknowledgement of weaknesses in the system and strategies in place in order to deal with those. And I didn't see that the board really holding the administration accountable."

3. New CBE headquarters

The new building on the corner of 12th Avenue and Eighth Street S.W. was the hot topic during the 2010 election. Even today, parts of the building remain vacant.

Trustees back then signed a 20-year lease for the building at rates set during the height of Calgary's building boom. The lease will cost $285 million.

In an email from administration in September, Taylor was told about the unused space.

4. Report cards

CBC Calgary broke the story that standardized report cards would be introduced for students in kindergarten to Grade 9.

The CBE planned to dump letter grades and percentages for students. Instead, report cards would use the terms "exemplary," "evident," "emerging" and "not meeting achievement." There would also be fewer personalized comments from teachers.

At the time, the head of the Calgary Association of Parents and School Councils criticized the decision.

"We have concerns about the removal of comments from report cards. Personally, I find the comments often have the most valuable information on the report card," said Jeff Bowes.

The CBE has now suspended a pilot project that was to start this year. Officials now say they want to consult with parents.

5. Management bonuses

This spring, the public board went ahead with controversial performance pay for non-unionized and exempt employees.

They were handed out at the discretion of supervisors, about 210 staff were eligible.

At the time, the CBE was facing budget cuts, larger class sizes and teacher layoffs. Even the province's education minister advised against bonus pay.

The public school board chair Pat Cochrane said at the time it was important to keep salaries competitive.

The next board?

Change is coming to the board of trustees. Longtime board chair Cochrane is not seeking re-election as well as trustee Carol Bazinet. 

"In the five boards that I've served on, just changing one member changes the whole board," says Cochrane.

"Because there's only seven of us, right, so if you have a one different voice at the table, things change. And so with two people for sure not returning — yeah the board will definitely be different."

Mount Royal University policy studies associate professor Lori Williams, says that because of the issues, she expects voters have more awareness than normal about what's happening at the Calgary Board of Education.

"There has been a bit of controversy around certainly the spending issues at the school board and I think primarily just people experiencing the larger class sizes now," says Williams.

"They're going to be looking twice at the decisions made by the board and if they want to send a message as to whether or not they think those decisions are the right ones, they'll be looking much more closely at the school board race."

Another big change for the school board will come when Naomi Johnson, the chief superintendent of schools, resigns next year.


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