Budget thoughts: Transparency and the status quo

We’ve now had a peak into what the CBE is facing in the upcoming budget. A budget report was put before trustees, and they had two hours worth of questions and discussion about it.

Trustee Trina Hurdman made a motion to use reserves to make up the difference in what will come from the province. While I applaud the sentiment and the desire to put students first, I don’t want to see this used as a way to preserve the status quo.

Hurdman is the strongest trustee when it comes to budget matters. And I think that she suspects that there are areas of administration that are bloated and divert dollars from the classroom.

Do we know this?

Well, we can’t know for sure because the 2014-15 budget documents are still pretty opaque. It’s really hard to tell what some of the layers of administration are costing us.

The biggest example is the building. We know that the CBE has an expense for leasing the Education Centre that is about $15 million per year.  Somehow the expense is buried in a line item from each service unit. It’s impossible to tell where. Perhaps the trustees have asked and know how much the building costs, but you can’t tell from the budget. They also say that 1 per cent of staff are “non-school-based certificated” but too often, departments that support schools are ruled to be “school based,” like the area offices, for example. Is this really the case? What is the number?

I’d also like to see some accurate budgeting.  The 2014-15 budget forecast zero in reserves for Aug. 2015 because they emptied reserves in the last budget cycle. But we know that the board has about $30 million in reserves they are planning to use next year. What’s the story?

So, first and foremost, I’d like trustees to demand a public budget document that is much more transparent so we can all see, plain as day, what central administration is costing the system. The CBE says some fee programs like  Chinook Learning Services  and noon supervision are self sustaining. Show us the numbers so we believe you. Be honest and upfront about your school support costs.  I can support something when I know what it costs and I can see the value.

But I’d also like to propose a few other cost saving measures:

1) Kindergarten busing. CBE is one of the only jurisdictions left in the country that still has all kindergarten students attend for a half day. This requires costly busing at noon for only a few students. Every where else has gone to two full days and every other Friday for Kindergartners. This would make it much easier for parents to arrange childcare, and save busing costs. Is it good for kids and learning? That’s questionable and I think the reason why the Board hasn’t done this to date. I would argue that the Catholics in Calgary have done this for a while without a negative impact. We had this in Ontario and saw it work just fine, even at the Junior Kindergarten level.

Dollars saved:  About $3 million: (That’s based on conservative estimate of 80 schools with lunch busing costs of $200 and 200 days of school. )

2) CBE Learn: How much does this cost? Good question. We don’t know because it is simply included as any other school, and we don’t see individual school budgets. (That’s another blog post in itself. ) Regardless, this is a complete duplication of the services provided by Alberta Distance Learning Centre. And, from our experience taking both CALM and English 20 online, it’s not all the flexible learning service it purports to be. To the contrary, it’s just another 8-4 kind of school, which doesn’t help kids get the courses they need done. Online learning maybe the wave of the future, but we don’t need all 68 school boards in the province offering their own version. Let’s turn this over to the province, and make Alberta Education pay for it.

Dollars saved: I’m guessing about $2 million. (That’s based on student enrolment of 550, a projection from the budget.)

3) Professional development, learning innovation, learning services and other great feel good services: If you read my blog post, you’ll know that the CBE has 275 in two departments called Learning Services and Learning Innovation. (These two departments are being merged for this budget year, saving the cost of at least a superintendent.) Is there waste here? I’d say yes. But I only know this from experience.

For example: There are at least two FTEs who supervise Campus Calgary Open Minds, a neat idea that moves the classroom to the community. There are 11 sites, including City Hall School. Zoo School, Science Centre, and my favourite, 2 School, which is at the Education Centre Building. (Wonder if they explain the difference between capital expenses and operating expenses or what Boondoggle means.)

Teachers apply to take their classes to the school for the week. I’ve spent time volunteering at two different sites, last week and last year.  All schools, including private and Charter schools can attend. But until very recently, the teachers at the CBE provided ALL curriculum and learning support to the staff at the sites. Recently, Calgary Catholic added a .5 FTE to the team. So, in effect, CBE is subsidizing learning for all southern Alberta students. If these ideas are such great ties to curriculum, and are open to all schools, why doesn’t Alberta Education take over the supervision and learning at these sites?

If you think useless travel in the CBE is over and done with, think again. I know of a elementary principal (Who didn’t speak French)  who went to France earlier this year to support some kind of learning partnership. How many CBE people went? What’s the benefit for students? Haven’t they heard of Skype? Why don’t they let people know (media) if the trip was so worthwhile?

Dollars saved: I’ll be conservative and say that they could find ways to pull $2 million from the almost $60 million budget.

Other odds and ends:

Corporate Partnerships: This department should be self sustaining. Show us how much it brings in every year.

Funding for Education Matters: While they are at lease charging rent to this charitable organization the CBE continues to pay over $500,000 for operating expenses. This has been reduced in recent years, but trustees needs to make this organization self-sustaining. Besides, in many ways, it duplicates the services provided by corporate partnerships. Dollars saved : $500,000.

Professional and Technical Services: This is a fancy way to say outside contractors. And many departments have very high numbers here. Some like architects or construction engineers you can understand, others not so much. And when the cost almost equals the salaries for the department, you have to wonder what it’s being spent on.

Legal Services: $954,000 (Salaries are $1.6 million.)
Facilities and Environment: $5.3 million
Learning Innovation: $920,000
Finance: $848,000
Human Resources: $6.6 million ($3.5 million is for payroll services.)
Chief Supt: $1.01 million (almost the same as salaries and benefits.)
Trustees: $559,000 (again, almost the same as salaries.)

How much could be saved? Don’t really want to hazard a guess. But think there is some, especially in legal, communications, trustees and Chief Supt offices.

High School Football: Again, we have little idea what this actually costs because we don’t see school budgets. We also don’t know how much of the CBE’s $5 million insurance tab covers sports-related liability. But we do know that football causes a lot of concussions, and that the nine local football clubs could easily step in. I know some people would worry that there are kids who only attend school because they can plan football. So, I say, make a deal with the clubs. When schools donate equipment to a club, add the caveat that all players must be enrolled in high school to play. Easy to do. Dollars saved: ? Brains saved: Priceless.

So, I’ve saved the CBE some dollars. I hope trustees go through the budget with the same thoughts. It shouldn’t be about preserving programs and services, but actually understanding what value they deliver to students and learning. Thoughts? Please share in comments.

 

 

 

Supporting Learning in the CBE takes 275 FTEs

We know it’s going to be a tough budget. The province is holding per pupil funding at current levels, and removing some funding for things like aboriginal education. So, the CBE will have to do more with less.

I’ve been a big critic of the board. I see a lot of people and not a lot of value in various administrative departments. Take the legal departments with 12 FTEs who spend a lot of time trying to silence vocal trustees, or communications with 22 FTEs, who can’t build current school websites that you can find without Google.

My post from a few weeks ago talked about the great work that goes on in CBE schools. In it, I asked how various centralized CBE learning supports and departments influenced students. I didn’t see really any evidence of this in my own children’s learning. (And I’ve asked principals and teachers.)

So, I went online to try and understand how CBE supports professional development for teachers. I found a few social media connections to
I found this blog post, from Senator Patrick Burns School.

It details how the teachers spent a recent PD day. Teachers described the hands on activity they did and how they are going to share making things with students. I thought the idea of creating and supporting “Maker Culture” was kind of interesting, but struck me as something schools have been doing for years.  How many different kinds of structures, homes, musical instruments, parachutes, mechanical cars and other things have we created at our home for school projects. Maybe this is a different approach and is worthwhile learning. I’d love to know what teachers think.

The CBE’s professional development is run through a department called Innovation and Learning Technology, (I think, anyway.)  I don’t know how many staff they have, but you can see their work from their social medial links; Twitter and Google Plus. They reach a small fraction of CBE’s teaching community 500 followers and 219 members in google group.

I also found CORE (Collaborative, Online Resource Environment)  an interesting blog and site for professional sharing that is a partnership of a number of boards and even charter schools. To me, this seems like a better approach to shared professional development – let’s do it province wide. After all, what is taught in CBE schools is actually the purview of the province.

Why am I asking these questions?

Look at the current 2014-15 CBE Budget Document. There are 275 staff in just two departments that are supposed to support learning in schools.

Learning Services has a budget of  $18.2 million and employs 119 FTE staff.  “These supports and services include the areas of: aboriginal education, alternative programs, assessment, attendance, curriculum, early learning, English language learning, exceptional needs, international students, IRIS implementation, multicultural services, outreach, psychological services, and suspension.” reads the document. (Page 21)

There is another department called Learning Innovation. It has a budget of $38.7 million and a total of 166 FTE employees. According to the budget:  “Learning Innovation includes several teams that directly work with and support schools including, Corporate Partnerships, Comprehensive School Health, Campus Calgary/Open Minds, School Nutrition and Noon Hour Programs, K – 12 Curriculum including Off-Site and Off-Campus learning programs, Innovation and Learning Technologies (school technology support and professional learning), Information Technology Services, Information Management including Records Management, Student Records Systems, and Research and Innovation – reporting to the province.” (Page 23)

So yes, these departments do some critical work. I realize that some of this work is hidden for students who don’t require these services, like psychological services and aboriginal learning. I don’t think schools could do with less IT support. And student records and report cards are important.

But I think before the board of trustees approves the 2016 budget, which it will do in May, they should take a hard look at these numbers and ask some very difficult questions.

I also think they need to look at the model of how they fund these items.

An example: It used to be, when I first got involved in school board issues, that school computers and tech systems were updated through a program called Evergreening. An analysis was done at the board level and every schools’ technology was updated every three years to meet board standards. Recently, according to one of my principals, the system was changed. Schools were given an allotment for technology as part of their RAM funding. Principals, (hopefully in concert with school councils) could decide how much or what technology they wanted to update or purchase. In this way, all spending decisions were made at the school level.

How about they do the same thing with professional development. Set a rate, give schools an allotment in their RAM funding, and then let each school decide how and what to spend money on, instead of having huge a huge department at the ready. I think this would right-size those departments.

You could do the same with all funding – for psychological services, aboriginal learning, special needs support. Heck, even the area offices are simply another costly level of management. Give the money to the schools, and have them decide how much of a service they need and buy it back.

This would also empower school principals, and make parents a whole lot more interested in attending school council meetings. Imagine those parent council meetings when the principal brings in a budget, with real and transparent numbers, and choices are made together on how money is spent.

A final thought: Minister Dirks has said that front line teachers will not be cut. But the CBE considers many of these support staff to be “front line, school staff, and they count as teaching staff. (They don’t count as part of “Administration.”) As parents, we need to be sure that the RAM funding to schools is increased, and any cuts happen to these non-classroom administrative staff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The benefits of a Balanced Day

We know the CBE can’t continue to operate as it has. The budget imbalance is growing, and the status quo isn’t working. We need to think about a range of things differently. Parents are also looking at school fees that continue to edge upwards.

Things have to change.

What changes could be made to improve student learning and help the budget?

I’d like to suggest that how we organize school days could help.

In Ontario, most schools have moved to a provincially-mandated Balanced Day schedule. This is where students start school, have two hours of instruction, followed by a 40 minute break (20 minutes for eating, and 20 minutes for outdoor play). They then have another 2 hours of instruction, then a similar 40 minute break. After the second break comes another 2 hours of instruction. The breaks ensure the day is broken into equal and productive work blocks.

Compare the two sets of schedules:

Ontario balanced day scenario:

balanced day hours

emh hours

This is an example of a Calgary elementary school schedule. There is a morning recess at 10:15, not listed, and no afternoon recess. Those were cut out many years ago at most schools. The result is an afternoon block from 12:27 to 2:53 p.m. with no break. Where as in the morning, when the kids are probably mostly on task, they break after less than 90 minutes. The morning is broken up with recess, while the afternoon time lags without a break.

Balanced day better reflects how kids should eat (smaller, more frequent meals) and cuts down on the costly transition time – putting on coats and boots. As well, many parents will tell you that when it`s very cold out, a full 40 minutes of outside play time is too much.

There have been a number of studies that show the benefits of balanced day on learning.

So, how could this impact the CBE? It could change the way the organization thinks about lunch and lunch room supervision – and the fees that go with it.

CBE receives $4.6 million in fees. Parents pay between $250 and $270 for lunch room supervision for the year, which works out to about $1.50 per day. There is an entire bureaucracy created to manage fees. There are six fee clerks and one supervisor to collect these fees. Non Payers over the threshold of $15 are sent to a collection agency, which then takes 30 per cent of anything recovered. (There is a moral question about using collection agencies for collecting fees, but that is a topic for another post.)

The budget document, on page 80, says that fees only cover 75 per cent of the cost of the program, the rest is paid for out of school funds. (ie, instructional grants.) Up to 6.7 per cent of what is paid by parents is diverted to cover admin costs. ($16.78 per student.)

For the 2012-13 school year, 88 per cent of the $21.7 million in assessed fees were paid. But another table shows 17.4 per cent of students, more than 8,000, were either granted waivers, or did not pay for lunch room supervision.

Lunchroom supervisors are paid between $18.68 and $23.02 per hour, and work about 10 hours per week. (I took this from a recent job posting.)  Now, remember, that you only need them for one of those hours, and you realize that there is a lot of wasted money.

How much money We don’t really know. There isn’t a line item in the budget to explain it. Some schools, like middle schools, get teachers to supervise over the lunch hour because they only have a couple of grade 5-6 classes. In my kids’ elementary schools, kids are bunched in groups of 50 plus. They sit on the floor to eat. It’s not ideal.

Moving to a balanced day could mean that the lunch room supervision staff actually work the two hours they are paid for. Or it could mean schools move to a system where teachers pick up the supervision duties – saving the cost of the extra staff.

I know many of you would say that the teacher’s union would never go for that. In our Ontario school board there were 2 PD days all year. That’s it. Teachers got prep time during the day, when the kids were with the music teacher, PE teacher or  the teacher-librarian. (They actually have those kinds of teachers out there.) I’d argue that is more productive use of prep time, than a full workshop every third or fourth Friday.

Maybe you throw it all together for discussion, talk to teachers and find a way to make lunch work for everyone – kids, teachers, parents and the cash-strapped school boards.

Hey, by-election candidates. Care to weigh in? Parents, what do you think?

 

 

 

 

 

Paris is risky? How about high school football

On the weekend, I commented for this Jeremy Nolais Metro story about the CBE potentially cancelling portions of high school trips to Europe because of the threat of terrorism.

I was happy the CBE is taking precautions, and managing risk. However, I can’t see that going to Paris, or flying into the Paris airport, is any more risky than playing high school football.

I’d love someone at the CBE to start talking about the risks and costs associated with offering a high school football program.

The statistics are stunning. In US studies, football injuries are second only to cycling in volume and severity. The rates of catastrophic spinal cord injury is 0.7 in 100,000 in high school and 2.66 at college.  That means the player does not recover. And death?  The rate is 0.4 in 100,000. The report mentions catastrophic brain injuries, and speaks to five cases in 2012, but does not provide a frequency rate.

That study doesn’t talk at all about garden variety concussions, the types that we now know can have devastating long-term impacts on a person’s life. The NFL commissioned a study of High School football in the US and found a rate of 11.3 concussions per 10,000 “athletic exposures.” That means every practice or game – and it’s almost twice the level of college football players.

And then, read this Globe and Mail story. It points to a study that shows football players don’t even need to be concussed to lose brain function. The constant low-level impacts of the game take a toll.

Don’t forget that tragedy has already hit the CBE’s football program.  In 2004, Tyler Zeer, a Gr. 11 student at Bowness High School died after a routine hit at a practice.

I would have thought there would have been some discussion about the future of football when results were known from this study at Ernest Manning High School. All players wore sensors in their helmets which measured the force of impact of hits. They used the data from the sensor to determine when a hit was hard enough to cause a concussion. When it happened, sports medicine personnel could assess the player. They found 15 of those hits through part of the season. That figure is more than the entire league reported in concussions for the whole season.

Ok, so we know it’s a risky sport.

What are the rewards? How does high school football benefit learning?

In the early 90s, I covered high school football for the Calgary Herald. I interviewed lots of student athletes, and got to know many, many coaches. I routinely did stories about the hard-knock kid,  whose talent on the football field kept them in school and away from drugs. Is this still happening?

I’m not sure. Back then, high school was the first opportunity for kids to play football. But now, there are 14 bantam (age 13-15) and Pee Wee (age 11-12) teams in Calgary and area that play in a well-organized league with city and provincial championships. There is also a midget program for Grade 9-11 kids to play in outside of the fall high school league.

It’s true, high school programs are more accessible fee-wise than the club programs. Most high school players pay about $300 to play. One midget football program I looked into cost about $600. However, I’m sure there are ways social organizations and kids sports charities could support teams and players through the nine Calgary clubs.

Then there is the cost to the CBE and its schools. We don’t know what proportion of the CBE’s $4.9 million insurance bill covers football-associated liability, but I’m sure there would be a chunk of it.

We also know it takes a lot of coaches. While many are volunteers who aren’t teachers, many are. There are often games where teachers will have to leave school early to make the games. (I know that’s the case with field hockey, track and cross country running.) So there’s missed class time when substitute teachers must be paid from school budgets.

Finally, while fees and fundraising pay for some equipment, I’m sure it’s not all of it. (Hence, the difference in cost between club and school programs.)

When you weigh the risks and the rewards, I say that it probably isn’t worth it. Especially when we know the well-funded and organized club system in Calgary would step in and provide players with a place to play each fall.

I spoke to a former contact of mine, a long time coach and athletic director. I asked should schools still offer football? His comment:

“I really can’t believe we still do.”

So, trustee candidates, what do you say?  Should we still be in the football business as way to support our core business of  learning?

One school has great parent communication, others terrible. Why is that?

I had coffee with a fellow CBE parent the other day. She has children in Grade 2 and Grade 5. Mine are in Grade 4 and 6. They are at four different schools.

We had vastly different experiences when it came to communication from school.

This parent complained that she never got to see her kids’ work. She didn’t know what they were doing day to day and had no idea what their reading and writing was like, aside from what she made them work on at home. She never got to see math work sheets or a journal.

My son, on the other hand, brings weekly math worksheets home. I have to sign and return them. Every Friday, his journal comes home for me (or my husband) to write a response. His journal talks about his week and what he is learning. His teacher writes a blog post, sometimes daily, but usually three times per week. She lets me know about important info, like library day, homework, and what they’ve been working on. I know what questions to ask him and what sharing we should be doing to enrich his learning.

I see less of this at my daughter’s school, but it’s still there. Math and science items for signatures are monthly, not weekly. And the students take turns students writing a class blog in French, so we can see what they are doing in class each day. (Even if our kids have to translate for us.)  It’s great communication.

Interesting to note, at one school, the blog is principal-driven and done on the CBE system. The other teacher is doing it on her own, so she’s using a free, web-based product.

For many schools, the monthly school newsletter, in PDF form and buried deep on the school website, is the tool used to communicate with parents. My friend and I agreed, these are a total waste of time. The newsletter is often more about fundraising, school council and activities than learning.  It’s static, not timely and there’s no avenue for response. That simply doesn’t cut it. (Content on the website would be better, at least it’s not buried. )

My friend and her kids are at a big disadvantage. How can she be part of learning when she’s so disconnected from it? Studies show, parent involvement is the biggest factor in our children’s success. All CBE schools need to involve parents in learning in a consistent, meaningful way. Why can some schools be so good at this and other’s so bad?

 

 

 

 

Some of our learning experiences at CBE schools

Over the years, my kids have had some great experiences at Calgary Board of Education Schools. They’ve grown as people, been challenged, and have experienced things that have really influenced their loves and their learning.

A few examples:
– My two youngest had the same kindergarten teacher, a very loving and lovely person who was patient and kind beyond belief. I spent many hours volunteering in her class and loved to see her in action. On the first day of school, she had a gift for every parent It included a tea bag, a cottonball and a very sentimental message about allowing her to share in the development of our children. There wasn’t a dry eye in the class. While this was more about the parent than child, it also showed what a special teacher she is. Her focus wasn’t on seeing a perfect cut out or a kid knowing every letter. Instead, he worked to ensure our kids loved learning. She explored and marvelled with them, (usually sitting on the floor,) and shared their joy in understanding something new. Learning how to love learning in kindergarten: That’s the best start a child could have.

– Art history isn’t on the elementary school curriculum, but by the end of Grade 5, my daughter could tell a Monet from a Manet, a Gaugin from a Picasso, and appreciated the light and themes of masters like Rembrandt, Vermeer and Raphael. A teacher had a passion and interest and shared it. Students created their own masterpieces, and talked about medieval art as they built fortresses and catapults. They incorporated art and history into discussions about literature in Language Arts. While she has moved away from art and art classes, she loves galleries and happily spent hours and hours with me in Ottawa, London, Washington and New York. It’s the type of learning that goes beyond pencil and paper. It hit home for her. She connected. And, to this day, still goes back to art for her lessons. (She studied anatomy with an art history book in hand.)

– My daughter created her first Science Fair project in Grade 6, after a science teacher in Grade 5 really got her thinking about science in a new way. He taught students that there was more to science than books, that you really had to explore to understand. Everything they did that year was hands on. My daughter was always looking for things to bring to school to go into the latest project – whether it was milk cartons and wheels, or vinegar or other assorted kitchen staples. He had a real passion for teaching, and it got her thinking about science in a much more advanced way. Since then, she’s been to Canada Wide Science Fair (CWSF) three times, winning awards every year. I credit a teacher who showed her what was possible.

– I have a daughter who loves to write – she was writing books and stapling them together, complete with illustrations, at kindergarten. Over the years, she’s had many teachers who have fostered this love of writing and creating. They’ve demanded to see her work, taken extra time to read and critique and ensure she’s challenged by all of her assignments. To me, this is a requirement of teaching. That you understand your students and encourage them to do more than what is expected by curriculum. I’m happy to say at some level, this happens every year.

In total, my kids have had 18 student-years in CBE schools. (And six in Ontario.) We’ve had a few teachers that I didn’t really like, and some that simply weren’t good fits with my kids. But those have been rare. Overall, our experience has been very, very positive.

So, it’s all good right?

Maybe not. How does CBE administration impact what is happening in the classroom? I understand pay cheques, computer support and paying electrical bills. What I don’t see is how they support learning. I’ve tried to understand how PD days are spent, how teachers are learning and supported. Most of my answers go back to team teaching, support from principals and shared learning at the school level.

One year, I did see AISI (provincial funding aimed at school improvement) learning leaders supporting a robotics program at our school. but that was just one year. In my mind, the best of what happened with my kids was the result of teachers working effectively in their classrooms. What do you think? Teachers, please share your thoughts. I’d love to hear some examples of central support working for teachers. (Anonymously, if you’d like.)

Is the CBE all about students?

The Calgary Board of Education always says they put students first. The ends, the organization’s mission is all about learning. And if you watch a board meeting, you’ll see both administration and trustees talk frequently about how student learning is always the priority.

That’s what  you’d expect to hear from a school board.

Is it the reality?

I’d like to get a discussion going.

I have three kids, in three different schools. I will tell you about experiences with each one where, I think, the CBE has put the bureaucracy ahead of my kids. They may not be huge, or life changing, but they impacted our school experience.

Example A: High School student taking course from CBE Learn.

CBE Learn is the CBE’s online junior and senior high school. It offers what it calls flexible learning. “Any time, any place and any pace,” touts the website. Well, not really.

My daughter, like many strong students, wants to graduate with three 30-level sciences, math and calculus. She’s also taking French Immersion social studies and French and loves Phys Ed. How to get all those courses in her schedule? She decided that she would take English 20 online as a 5th course this past semester. She wanted to get it done on her own schedule.

Well, CBE Learn doesn’t quite work that way. She hit the panic mode when she found out that she couldn’t get any work done over the Christmas holiday break because there are no teachers working. Then, she was given a 10-day window to write her final exam – at the exact same time as when she was writing her four other exams, including a diploma exam.

I called to speak to principal to see if she could wait and write it later. I was told no, that they had the same reporting deadlines as traditional classes. Basically, the assistant principal I spoke to blamed Alberta Education. (He did however, allow her to come in and write on a Monday, despite the test centre being closed on Mondays. It was the only day that week when she didn’t have another exam.)

So why call it flexible learning? Why say you can work at your own pace? Why are these deadlines imposed?

Bishop Carroll High School has built a whole school around flexible learning. Aside from diploma exams, students can take as long or as little time as they want to finish courses. There are no windows where final exams have to be written. If they can do it, why can’t CBE Learn?

I think this is an example of a system that has been set up around an administration model and that’s what directs learning. Student needs are secondary. She is looking at taking English 30 online. We will try Alberta Distance Learning, online classes offered through a school set up by Alberta Education. Maybe it’s actually flexible. (And maybe the Education Minister will follow through on his twitter speculation about “anytime diploma exams.” )

Example B: Grade 3 bus stops

Last year, my son rode the bus. He had to walk about 700 metres from home to the stop on a fairly major road through our community. There was another boy, in Grade 4, at the same stop. We both lived along the main road, but about 500 metres south from the assigned stop. They were on the only two kids at the stop, and the bus picked them up, then literally drove by both of our houses on its route.

We asked if we could move the stop closer to our homes. We filled out forms, and then wrote appeals. We were refused. We were told, at some point, there may be other kids who would access the stop from the north. We understood. Agreed that it could easily be changed back if required. We both pleaded. Why make our kids walk an extra 500 metres in -30 degree weather for some hypothetical kids that may arrive at some point in future? We were told, in a nutshell, it would be too much work to change the bus stop.

The driver sympathised, however he said he couldn’t break the rules. We agreed. But it was kind of comical.  If the boys were late, the driver had to wait and watch them run down the street. He couldn’t drive ahead to pick them up.

Now, I drive my son to school in the winter, and he rides his bike in the summer.

Example C: Supporting extra-curricular activities

My younger daughter is very lucky to attend a school with a large group of dedicated parents who want to volunteer in the school. One dad, an accomplished engineer, wanted to set up a science club and take a group of about 20 interested students to Science Olympics, an event put on by APEGA (Association of Engineering and Geoscience in Alberta).

It’s all great. One lunch hour a week, this dad comes in, often with guests, and they do special projects to prepare for the Olympics. Students are given problems and tools to solve them. But it’s hard to fit in things like building an electric car in a lunch hour. So this volunteer asked to be able to plan an extra-long session after school on a Friday. Kids are dismissed at noon, so it’s not hard to stay for an extra couple of hours.

But the school administration said no. I have no idea why. Parents of students in the club weren’t asked their opinions or it transportation would be an issue. Instead, kids were taken out of class for  a three-hour stretch so they could do this extra-curricular work.

So missing class is somehow OK, but staying later on a Friday afternoon can’t be managed? Again, this is an example of inflexibility that is a detriment to students.

Do you have examples of administration putting its needs before students? Please share in comments.

As we move to a school board election, I’d like to see a good discussion of what student-centred learning really means.

Tomorrow, I’d like to share some of the wonderful experiences my children have had at school. (I’ll give a hint:  It all happens in the classroom.)

 

 

Why I shouldn’t run for CBE Trustee

Yesterday, I penned a blog post about why I should run for the board of trustees. I’m passionate about Public Education and have the skills and leadership to succeed at the role. I could be a valuable ally for parents who want to ensure education dollars are well spent.

But there are all kinds of reasons not to run.

Do I want to join the mean girls club?

Unfortunately, that’s what many have turned to calling the Calgary Board of Education Trustees. From their comical phone call to Metro reporter Jeremy Nolais, to their performance in many publicly broadcast board meetings, its obvious professionalism and tact aren’t job requirements. I’ve heard some awful stories about what happens behind closed doors: personal attacks, slander and ganging up to vent on unpopular trustees.

Just look how the group pushed Trustee Sheila Taylor, who was often critical of the board, to the sidelines and eventually ousted her. Trustees said they weren’t allowed to grant Taylor her requested leave of absence under the school act. However two other trustees in the province had been granted leaves for the same purpose in 2012. Ironically, one was past Alberta School Boards President Jacquie Hansen, the very group the CBE cited as providing the legal opinion that leaves were not allowed. We’ll see what Edmonton Public School Board does with trustee Sarah Hoffman, who is asking for a leave to run provincially.

It’s also clear CBE trustees still don’t make decisions in a public and accountable way.

Taylor’s resignation happened at a public meeting that lasted two minutes,  between 1:43 and 1:45 p.m. on Oct. 3. Any discussion about the School Act, the ability of the board to grant a leave and associated legal opinions took place in an informal meeting before the public meeting, without minutes, motions or public scrutiny. What could be more in the public interest than how voters are represented? How could any trustee think this is good governance to keep these legal opinions and any discussion or debate on this issue private?

I bristle at the thought of sitting in a private meeting, discussing something that I felt clearly was in the public interest. Could I maintain my silence and hold confidentiality? How could I fulfill my pledge to voters to do things differently and be open and transparent if my colleagues continually opted to move in-camera? I can make my objections noted in minutes. However, what difference will that make?

And clearly, that is the biggest reason not to run. I would only be one vote on a board of seven.

While I know I have the skills to make cogent arguments and can be persuasive, I’m not sure that some of these trustees are open to listening.  On all the contentious votes last term, most went 5-2, with only Sheila Taylor and Carol Bazinet dissenting from the majority. This term, many key votes have been 4-3, with Trina Hurdman, Amber Stewart and Taylor voting as a block. It’s a situation that many are very frustrated with. There is simply an inability to make change without that majority of four votes. If elected, I’d replace Taylor’s vote. Still a losing proposition.

I know I could represent parents, voters and my communities very well. I could be an advocate and be public and transparent. However, I probably still couldn’t effect any change. Is it worth it?

Then, there’s the whole issue of the relevance of school boards when all the major decisions, infrastructure, funding, curriculum, are made in Edmonton. That’s for another post.

Why I’m considering running for the vacant CBE trustee position

 

When I ran for public school board trustee in 2010, I ran on a platform of fiscal restraint and reform, public accountability and meaningful public engagement. I lost a close race, but did publicize many issues at the Calgary Board of Education.

Until my campaign, there had been no public disclosure of the $285 million lease on the new education centre, no criticism of the Board’s fundraising arm Education Matters (that cost more in administration funding than it raised in donations) and little debate about the Board’s excessive private meeting time. I heard many complaints about the way the Board was making decisions, without engaging its key stakeholders, like parents, in any meaningful way, and pledged to improve the process.

Why should I run again?

All of those issues still exist.

While a couple of trustees have worked hard to ensure more detailed budgets are presented to the public, there is still a lack of understanding of the true costs of administration. There is a large gap between the provincial per student grant and what is sent to CBE schools to spend on staff and students. I plan on doing a lot more research on this in the coming weeks to determine just what this gap is.

Public engagement? Well, they haven’t tried to build any windmills without asking the community, but trustees and administration alike still continue to talk to parents, not with them. At the Oct 21 Board meeting, three trustees voted to commend the administration for improving parent involvement. The indicator of success? Page views on the CBE website had increased.

While there are a couple of declared candidates,  who I’m sure are great people and ardent supporters of public education,, I’m not sure any have shown they have the what it takes to turn this board around. The risk we run electing someone without an understanding of the system is the new trustee gets swept along with the majority, who support administration unconditionally and don’t ask any tough questions.

There is a long history of this, going back four superintendents. In 1999, it was administration who encouraged then-Education Minister Lyle Oberg to sack all the CBE Trustees, including now PC MLA Danielle Smith. From that moment, the new board worked in deference to admin. That continued through Chief Superintendent Brendan Croskery, who convinced the Board to go along with the new Education Centre Lease, which has been called the worst real estate deal in Calgary history. We now know the lease was signed by administration, and then approved by trustees 18 months later. I’ve talked to trustees on the board at the time. They were informed about developments, but there wasn’t ever any outs. Administration didn’t ask for checks or oversight, and trustees didn’t demand them. It is a classic case of cart driving the horse, with no escape route and no one watching.  (Every meeting about the Ed Centre happened behind closed doors.) I think this type of thing may be still happening. (I think of the negotiations about the new Sports School.)

Trustees shouldn’t be beholden to administration. You can be a trustee, celebrating the good while speaking out about the bad. Just because you are critical of the CBE, doesn’t mean you don’t support the organization. In many ways, it means you care more about it. I have three children in three CBE schools. I see the best of the organization, and the worst of it every day. I want to see  more of the good things and a lot less of the bad ones.

However, you can’t be an effective trustee that if you think that the problem is solely caused by the province. Some people, including a majority of current trustees feel that if the minister just paid more money and built schools, the CBE wouldn’t have any issues at all.

Watch the last 10 years of budget debates. I’ve either been there or watched most of them. Most trustees ONLY moan and complain about provincial funding levels. They do little to actually look at the numbers, question the benefits of costly expenditures or ask for facts to support administration claims. Most approve as is, with little debate (With notable exceptions – Trina Hurdman and Sheila Taylor, for example.)

I recognize that stable funding is a priority for budgeting. And while I will always advocate for public money for public education, I understand that resources are finite. I’d like to see a trustee candidate pledge, not to ask for more money, but to ensure that ALL money that comes to the CBE is spent in the best way possible, and that scarce education dollars are completely focussed on student learning, not legal opinions or spin doctors.

CBE parents pay some of the highest fees in the province, and in many ways, are provided with a lot less service. It is the biggest board, and given economies of scale, it should be in a much better position than smaller boards. But it isn’t. Can we please elect a trustee who is willing to figure out why.

Tomorrow, I’ll have another blog post. The reasons I shouldn’t run.