In Depth

How much power do Calgary school board trustees have?

School board trustees do not actually have much power any more, says Mount Royal University policy studies chair Duane Bratt.

Calgarians to elect officials to be responsible for our education system Oct. 21

Elected school board trustees plan for their own jurisdiction, set priorities based on community needs, hire and evaluate the superintendent and adopt an annual budget. (Mark Bugnask/Associated Press)

School board trustees do not actually have much power any more, says Mount Royal University policy studies chair Duane Bratt.

"Their power has been stripped away both from above and below," he said.

Bratt says the provincial government has been gradually taking responsibility for education away from elected school board trustees. He believes it started back in 1999 when the province fired the entire Calgary public school board for being dysfunctional. 

Trustee pay

Calgary Board of Education

Trustees earn $45,000 honorarium annually

Vice-chair earns an extra $5,000

Board chair receives an extra $10,000

Taxable benefits and some expenses are reimbursed

Calgary Catholic School District

Trustees earn $30,774 annually

Vice-chair earns an extra $3,947

Board chair earns an extra $7,895

Some benefits and some expenses are covered

Time commitment

An informal review of CBE trustees suggests an average of 23 hours of work each week during the school year. Outgoing CBE board chair Pat Cochrane says she spends between 30 and 40 hours a week, depending on whether there's a board meeting or other activities to attend.

Catholic board vice-chair Linda Wellman says her commitment to the job varies every week — sometimes 25 hours a week, others 10 or five. She points out trustees can be as busy as they want to be.

More recently, the government imposed a four-year contract for teachers with all 62 school boards, even though some boards, such as the Calgary Board of Education (CBE), had turned it down. Bratt also says the province has been deciding where to build schools, often ignoring the wishes of boards.

The university professor points to the last budget passed by the Calgary public board as an example of its waning influence. Because board administration is made up of full-time employees often on the job for years, part-time trustees are at a disadvantage.

"Here, a good illustration was the passing of a $1.2 billion budget with very little debate and five line items on it. That really doesn't give you an opportunity for asking questions, of really interrogating the budget and so then the questions become have school boards simply become rubber-stamp for the superintendent," says Bratt.

According to Alberta Education, school trustees plan for the jurisdiction, set priorities based on what the community wants, hire and evaluate the superintendent, and adopt an annual budget, among other duties.

Taxing powers

Jacquie Hansen, president of the Alberta School Boards Association, believes the power of boards started to erode in the 1990s. That's when the province took education property taxes away from local school boards and the money was pooled. That allowed Alberta Education to make the financial decisions.

"We do get frustrated at times with some of the government decisions,” says Hansen.

"We don't have the taxation powers to raise money in our own communities to respond directly to community needs and we have to go through the process of giving the ministry our priorities and letting them decide, crossing our fingers," she says.

However, Hansen says that doesn't mean school boards aren’t relevant. She says they are important to reflect the community voice and to meet the expectations of parents. 

Boards still vital, says outgoing chair

But outgoing CBE chair Pat Cochrane disagrees that the power of trustees is waning.

The fact that her board stood up to the province over the four-year teacher contract shows its influence, she says.

"If the province really wanted the deal, then it should be their deal and not ours."

Trustees hire the chief superintendent and set the expectations for that job, she says.

"That has to be the focus all the time is, what's best for these students, and so I think the other power of influence you have is to go out into the community and say to people, ‘Do you know what a great public education system you have, how successful it is.’ And then, of course, always to listen to what the community is saying about how to make it better, what their expectations are and how you can improve."

Linda Wellman, who is acclaimed for her ninth term on the Catholic school board, says trustees advocate for education and for children. She says they set the policies and monitor to make sure administration follows those guidelines. Wellman says the board makes sure public dollars are spent in accordance with what the province, parents and the bishop expect.

"As Catholic trustees, we are role models of our faith. So those are all things I don't believe the government can do and do as well as we can at the local level," said Wellman.


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