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.