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.




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.)