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.

 

 

 

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.