Funds to reduce class size not tracked, ineffective, auditor general says

Alberta Education has not been able to reduce the number of students in the province’s classrooms despite spending billions of dollars on the issue over the past 14 years, according to a new report from the province’s auditor general.

February report also finds Albertans not given enough information about Sturgeon refinery

Auditor General Merwan Saher says Alberta Education has not been able to meet class-size targets. (Shutterstock)

Alberta Education has not been able to reduce the number of students in the province's classrooms despite spending billions of dollars on the issue over the past 13 years, according to a new report from the province's auditor general.

The report, released Thursday, found the ministry put money that was supposed to go towards reducing class sizes into general instructional funding. The government also isn't tracking how the districts are spending the money.

"Despite the $2.7 billion in funding spent on the initiative, the number of school jurisdictions that met the department's class size targets in 2017 is lower than in 2004," the report states.

The class-size reduction initiative started in 2003. The money still appears as a line item in the ministry's budget. The amount was $293 million in the 2017-18 budget.

"The sums of money described as class-size initiative, essentially has morphed into just being part of the base funding to the education sector," said auditor general Merwan Saher.

Auditor General Merwan Saher says funding for reducing school class sizes instead went to general instructional funding. (Michelle Bellefontaine/CBC News)

Auditors found reporting initiatives evolved over time. In 2007, the government loosened the reporting requirements after school districts complained they were too onerous as they had to give reasons for not reaching hiring targets.

Saher also had tough words for MLAs who would have seen that line item while reviewing last year's budget. 

"No questions were asked in two days of meetings as to whether or not the department, whether the minister was in fact achieving what was intended with that expenditure," he said. 

On average, the ideal class size of 17 students for kindergarten to Grade 3 was never achieved in the life of the program, the auditors found. Only 7.2 per cent of school jurisdictions reached that target in 2017, the report said. 

Education Minister David Eggen said the class-size initiative would continue. He vowed to take action on the recommendations, though he would not be specific about what he's planning to do.

"I'm not taking the line item out. We're going to make it better and we're going to make it better around accountability and reporting," he said. 

"We are certainly going to take action. You can judge us on our actions in regard to public education in the past."

Public kept in dark over Sturgeon refinery

The auditors also found the Alberta Petroleum Marketing Commission (APMC) isn't able to prove it is managing the risks presented by the Sturgeon refinery, 45 kilometres northeast of Edmonton.
Saher's report says the Alberta Petroleum Marketing Commission isn't able to prove it is managing risks presented by the Sturgeon refinery near Redwater. (CBC)

The province has agreed to send the refinery about $26 billion worth of bitumen over 30 years. The refinery, operated by the North West Redwater Partnership, will convert the bitumen into ultra low sulphur diesel and other products. The refinery is set to be fully operational by June.

The APMC is in charge of managing the project for the government.

The report found APMC isn't providing sufficient information to the public about the project.

"Albertans are not being fully informed about this fairly significant endeavour," Saher said. "There is a simple story to be told and it isn't being told."

He said Albertans need assurance that APMC understands the risks and manages them properly. He wants APMC to release its annual report to the public. 

"The risk-benefit proposition should be set out simply and Albertans should be informed how these risks are in fact being managed," Saher said. 

The report also looked at the government's climate leadership plan. The auditors found it has no overall implementation plan as it involves a number of ministries.

Saher commends the government for issuing a progress report in December 2017. But he recommends the government more clearly lay out expected costs to 2030.

The report also found the Ministry of Indigenous Relations had "significant" delays in filing expense forms and provided inadequate documentation or reasons for an expense. 

Richard Feehan, indigenous relations minister, said he became aware of the issue last fall. He said the department trained staff and hired more people to help improve expense reporting.

About the Author

Michelle Bellefontaine

Reporter/Web editor

Michelle Bellefontaine covers the Alberta legislature in Edmonton. She has also worked as a reporter in the Maritimes and in northern Canada. You can reach her at michelle.bellefontaine @cbc.ca.