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.