Calgary

CBE trustees release document to combat budget 'misconceptions'

Calgary Board of Education trustees have released a two-page document answering some of the public's most asked questions about the CBE budget. 

Ministry official says CBE demonstrates 'systemic inability to prioritize their students'

The CBE's 'key information' document gives the board's answers to a few of the most asked budget questions. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Calgary Board of Education trustees have released a two-page document answering some of the public's most asked questions about the CBE budget. 

Board chair Marilyn Dennis said trustees decided to post their Key Information about the CBE's 2019-20 Budget online after the Dec. 12 meeting of the Council of School Councils. That group includes trustees, administrators and representatives from every school council in the district.

"The budget has been of interest to parents and we just felt that this would be a good way to provide additional clarity in terms of how we're managing our budget for this year," she said. 

'Systemic inability to prioritize their students'

The CBE is undergoing an independent audit of its finances and governance, as ordered by Education Minister Adriana LaGrange. That review is due back to the minister by Jan. 31, 2020.

When asked to comment on the CBE's "key information" document, a spokesperson for LaGrange's ministry said Grant Thornton LLP has already begun the review.

"Which we hope will get down to the root causes of the CBE's systemic inability to prioritize their students and practise strong fiscal management," the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

But trustee Julie Hrdlicka said trustees hope the document helps to dispel certain misunderstandings about the CBE's budget. 

"I think we were able to collaboratively work as a board and really hear from each other what are we hearing from other people," she said. "What are the misconceptions out there or the ideas that aren't clear to people here?"

Trustees narrowed it down to five things they wanted to address, starting with explaining why the CBE needs to cut $32 million in 2019-20. 

This graphic shows the changes to CBE's funding this year compared with the 2018-19 school year. (CBE)

The $32-million question

"The CBE submitted a budget to the province in June that assumed funding would be maintained at 2018-19 levels," reads the document. "The Oct. 24, provincial budget cut funding to the CBE by $32 million compared to the 2018-19 school year."

Those cuts came in the form of grant reductions, and also impacted other school boards, including the Calgary Catholic School District. Cutting the grants resulted in an $11-million budget reduction for the Calgary Catholic board. 

The CBE document goes on to explain that funding has not kept pace with growth and inflation for many years.

According to its calculations, if the budget had kept pace, it'd be roughly $170 million more than it is now. 

"We did take a dip, certainly, this year with the budget cut of $32 million, which did widen the gap a bit," said Dennis. "But you can see that it's been a number of years where the per student funding hasn't kept pace with increasing cost."

The CBE's funding per student compared with inflation-adjusted funding. (CBE)

After the CBE's budget was cut in October, the board made the decision to cancel more than 300 temporary teacher contracts in January.

LaGrange subsequently told  Alberta school boards to apply for one-time access to some of their maintenance funding to address any staffing concerns. 

The CBE applied and was granted access to $15 million of its maintenance dollars — which the CBE then used to rescind the teacher layoff notices, while at the same time retroactively increasing transportation fees.

'I was flabbergasted'

LaGrange has said multiple times, including in an interview with CBC News last week, that she was not happy with the CBE or trustees and their decision to cut the teaching positions.

The minister said she felt they should have first looked at cutting administration or using their reserves.

"I was flabbergasted," she said. "They went to that as a default rather than doing the hard work of actually looking to see, 'oh, do we have reserves? Yes we do. Let's look at our reserves.'"

But, according to the CBE's "key information" document, they have cut administration.

Administrative cuts

"We have. For many years, the CBE has protected classrooms and front-line teachers by reducing non-school-based spending," reads the document. 

"Our board spends about $48 million per year on central administration. That is about 3.6 per cent of all spending, and meets the cap set by Alberta Education."

In fact, the document says the CBE has cut administrative positions by more than double the rate at which student enrolment and school-based staff have increased. Dennis said those administrative cuts can't go on.

The CBE says that while student enrolment has increased by 7.5 per cent and school/area-based staff has increased by 7.2 per cent since 2015-16, non-school-based staff has gone down by 18 per cent in the same time period. (CBE)

"We don't have enough administration to cut to make a dent," she said. "It would make sense that as the system grows we need administrative support to support the entire system, yet we are still taking cuts at the administrative level."

Hrdlicka said the administrative cuts have been made in response to what the board saw kids needed.

"We're doing our very best to keep up with what our kids need. And I think that is really important for people to understand that we are responsive, and we are, and we have been listening to people," she said. 

"Because this is our story, we have to own it. And these documents are a really important way for us to tell that story."

CBE already using $10 million of reserves

Further, Dennis said the idea that the CBE hasn't tapped into its reserves to bridge the gap is not true. 

"We are using reserves to balance this year's budget to the tune of $10 million. So that's significant. That is going to bring us down to 2.3 per cent of our overall budget left in operating reserves," she said. 

The CBE plans to use $10 million of operating reserves to balance this year's budget. This will only leave $4 million in unallocated reserves at the end of the year. (CBE)

"The suggested target for operating reserves is three to five per cent, but we are taking from reserves to balance the budget and it will bring us down extremely low."

The education centre lease

The document answers a question that comes up a lot when talking about CBE's fiances: "Why don't you cancel your education centre lease?"

"We felt it was important to address it here because it does, it continues to come up," said Dennis. 

As Dennis and the document explain, the decision to lease the space for the education centre was made by a previous board and a previous administration.

"Those folks are no longer part of the CBE but subsequent boards and administrations continue to wear that decision," she said. 

And, as the document explains, the CBE is contractually obligated to make lease payments for its Eighth Street S.W. location until 2031. 

"The lease arrangement was approved by the provincial government at the time," it reads. 

Dennis said that despite their best efforts, they can't get out of the lease. 

"We have considered every legal means of being able to remove ourselves from the lease but we haven't come up with any solutions at this point," she said. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson or reach her by email at lucie.edwardson@cbc.ca

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