Calgary

Final CBE budget submitted to province despite efforts by trustee to flip the vote

The Calgary Board of Education has submitted its final budget to the province after months of budget woes — including a $48-million dollar funding gap and an ongoing independent audit of their finances and governance ordered by the province.

Budget follows months of financial woes, including a funding gap and an ongoing audit

The Calgary Board of Education has submitted its final budget to the province. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

The Calgary Board of Education has submitted its final budget to the province after months of budget woes — including a $48-million funding gap and an ongoing independent audit of its finances and governance ordered by the province.

But the vote to approve the budget and send it to Education Minister Adriana LaGrange was not unanimous. 

At Tuesday's board meeting, trustee Mike Bradshaw did not vote for the budget — and urged his fellow trustees not to, either.

"Let this be our message to the government. They need to understand that if they fail our students now, they are condemning the future of Alberta," he said. 

Bradshaw said in spite of what he feels are the CBE's best efforts to inform engage and advocate to decision makers about the importance of education in Calgary and the province, he doesn't know what's left to do.

"Today we're supposed to express our concerns in these comments but pass the budget and look the other way to what is happening. We don't have to though. That's why we have a vote," he said.

"This is not about fiscal conservatism or funding efficiencies. This is a budget that systemically damages the organization we were elected to represent."

CBE trustee Mike Bradshaw suggested sending a message to the province by refusing to vote on a final budget. (Bryan Labby/CBC )

The board was informed by their legal council that if they didn't vote to approve the budget, they could be fined or the board could be discharged.

And, while trustee Julie Hrdlicka told her fellow trustees she was "this close to being revolutionized," by Bradshaw's "inspiring" words, ultimately she did not join his cause.

"[Your words] speak to the level of concern that trustees are feeling based on what's in front of them right now," she said.

"But for me I think I need to be here as we go through this roller coaster and do whatever I can do to not put that into jeopardy because I believe each and every one of our voices here at the table are critical."

A feeling that was echoed by other trustees.

"We have an obligation to do the best within the constraints we are given. Yes we are subject to many regulations and constraints that at times we wish we weren't but that is the nature of our role and our job," said Trina Hurdman. 

" And I think it is important that we continue to do our job to advocate for our students to make sure that we are honest — and at times more brutally honest than the government would like us to be — about exactly what these fiscal challenges are."

Trustee Lisa Davis suggested that if trustees feel they can no longer do that — they have other options.

"In terms of symbolic gestures of course you know one of the options available to trustees is to resign. If the trustee feels that they can no longer fulfil their duties and then they have the opportunity to resign," she said.

Budget timeline

Back in spring of 2019, the CBE submitted a budget to Alberta Education assuming that its funding would be maintained at the same levels as the 2018-19 school year, "irrespective of enrolment growth and inflationary pressures," according to CBE documents.

When the Alberta government tabled its budget on Oct. 24, the CBE's budget had been slashed by $32 million mid-year, resulting in a nearly $48-million funding gap.  

Then, on Nov. 14, 2019, the CBE announced it would need to cut 317 temporary teacher contracts in January 2020, in order to bridge its funding gap. 

This decision was met with anger by LaGrange, who said the CBE was using the teachers as "political pawns."

Six days later, on Nov. 20, LaGrange ordered an independent audit of CBE finances and governance citing "systemic mismanagement."

One week later on Nov. 27, LaGrange announced one-time access for Alberta school boards to use a portion of their Infrastructure Maintenance and Renewal (IMR) grant to support classroom staffing. The CBE applied to access $15 million of its IMR grant funding to maintaining school based positions and lessen a projected transportation deficit. 

LaGrange approved the CBE's use of IMR dollars in early December, and the 317 teachers' who had been handed pink slips just weeks before were told by the CBE that their jobs would be saved.

On Dec. 10, the CBE retroactively scrapped fee-free busing and Calgary Transit rebates for the 2019-2020 school year.

On Dec. 12, the independent audit of the CBE's governance and fiance led by Grant Thornton LLP began. 

On Tuesday, at the CBE's first board meeting of 2020, trustees approved administration's budget update. It sees $10 million from the CBE's capital reserves and $14 million from its operating reserves — for a total of $24 million — being used to balance the budget.

This leaves the capital reserves virtually empty, and only $14 million left in operating reserves.

"These are dangerously low reserve levels," said Hrdlicka. "Healthy organizations do not have reserve levels like this."

Chief financial officer Brad Grundy said the use of reserves does buy the board a little time but not security.

"In the absence of those reserves you do not have the luxury of time you need to act," he said. "We won't have that flexibility so we'll have to be making those decisions much more rapidly over the next little while."

The ongoing financial and governance audit of the CBE by Grant Thornton LLP is due back to LaGrange at the end of the month.

About the Author

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary, currently focused on bringing you stories related to education in Alberta. In 2018 she headed a pop-up bureau in Lethbridge, Alta. Her experience includes newspaper, online, TV and radio. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson

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