'We've taken a prudent approach': CBE superintendent weighs in on MacKinnon panel's findings

The United Conservative Party has yet to unveil its provincial budget, but the blue ribbon panel tasked to find places to cut government spending proposed recommendations that could have major repercussions on Calgary schools.

Christopher Usih addresses proposed budget cuts and curriculum changes

The blue ribbon panel recommended $600 million in cuts to government spending, which could have a significant impact on Calgary schools. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

As kids head back to school this week, the future of Alberta's education system looks especially uncertain.

The United Conservative Party has yet to unveil its provincial budget, but the blue ribbon panel tasked with finding places to cut government spending proposed recommendations that could have major repercussions on Calgary schools.

The MacKinnon report, which was released on Tuesday, included suggestions to reduce education spending on governance and administration and base funding for schools on performance instead of enrolment.

Christopher Usih, the chief superintendent of the Calgary Board of Education, spoke to guest host Doug Dirks on the Calgary Eyeopener Thursday morning about the panel's findings and the future of Calgary's schools.

Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Q: What do you make of the panel's recommendation to base education funding on performance and not enrolment?

A: It's too soon to really know the full impact of the panel's recommendations. As you know, the reports were just released two days ago, and we've been studying the report closely. And of course, with time, we'll have greater clarity in terms of what impact is for our sector.

Q: One of the recommendations said that there should be cuts to the amount of money that's spent on administration and governance in Calgary schools, and they're connecting it to Ontario that spends 17 per cent of its budget on those things. Meantime, in Alberta it's 25 per cent. Why is there such a high cost to administration and governance in Calgary schools?

A: I can say to you that here at the Calgary Board of Education … we are certainly within — actually, just a little below — what the target is in terms of the proportion spent on administration. We've kept the line steady and we're certainly going to continue to do so. And if there are adjustments or changes in the near future, we'll make those changes. But I am confident that the administration is certainly within the government guidelines.

Q: The UCP government [is] under no obligation to adopt any or all of those recommendations but … you won't know for sure what your funding is going to look like going forward until the budget is released in October. The schools have had to budget and plan their school years without knowing what's coming. So how do you even do that? 

A: Our board of trustees passed this current school year's budget, and that was based on the assumption that our funding levels will be constant at last year's level. So, we've taken that prudent approach just to ensure that we're in a situation where in late October, when we finally receive our budget ... we'll have greater clarity and we can make adjustments ... It's always nice to be in a situation where if you receive additional funding, you're able to provide additional resources, as opposed to disrupting schools. 

Q: And part of that was laying off support staff permanently or temporarily, and in anticipation of cuts from the province. Those people are quite often integral to the success of kids with more challenges, and ultimately how well things work for everyone in the classroom. So how are schools going to deal with that until you have certainty?

A: What principals have done, [while] certainly working with the education directors, is to ensure that our staffing… really meets the needs of the students [that] they deserve. So principals have made those determinations in terms of staffing based on what they know would be in the best interests of the students and their abilities

Obviously, because of the uncertainty around the budget, there's certainly some pressure points that we're experiencing as a district … and hopefully in October, when we receive our budget, we will have greater clarity.

Q: We've been talking on the show this week about Alberta's choice-based school system when it comes to things like charter schools, and you spent many years working with the Toronto school board, which also has a choice-based system for schools. Is it the right way forward? 

A: I really can't speak in terms of the direction with respect to charter schools, but what I will say to you is that certainly within the Calgary Board of Education, we fully understand and recognize that parents are interested in a breadth of programming and we'll certainly offer a breadth of programs within our system — including alternative schools, alternative programs and specialty programs within our district, and also we offer not only traditional schools on a traditional learning model, but also schools on a modified calendar. 

So, we've taken the approach that we have to provide programming that meets the needs of our diverse population and our communities. So far, that's working well for us, and we will continue to be responsive to the needs of our students and our communities.

Q: And yet, many argue that the choice system for schools leads to segregation and exclusivity, a two-tier system that gives parents with more opportunity access to better education for their kids, that it's socioeconomic; that you know how to work the system. And if you live primarily on the west side of the city or the south side of the city, that you have more access to charter schools. So what about that argument?

A: A real consideration for us in terms of … offering of programs to meet the needs of students across our city, irrespective of geography, is to ensure that our programs are accessible to families and students across the city.

We are confident that the approach we've taken, with respect to our commitment to equity, is to ensure that students are not placed at a disadvantage by virtue of where they live in the city. We are really committed to equity here at the CBE, and certainly part of that, again, is listening to our communities and making sure that we are really meeting the targets. 

Q: The curriculum is being revisited and restructured. What would you like to see happen there to to raise the performance of Alberta students?

A: The approach we've taken is one that really understands that there ought to be a balance.

Obviously, students need to be grounded in the fundamentals. So that's a good thing. But also, we can't lose sight of the fact that we're preparing students to live in a more complicated, complex environment, where they need to collaborate and apply skills and problem [solve]. It's above and beyond just the fundamentals.

So, there's certainly room for both ... and I'm hopeful that the panel that has been struck will certainly be mindful of that balance that we think is necessary.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.


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