Call for CBE Budget to be Released and Debated

Education Minister Dave Hancock and officials from the Calgary Board of Education have been in a war of words about the CBE’s budget for the upcoming school year. To some extent, this war has played out in the pages of the Calgary Herald,  with the Herald writing a sympathetic editorial to the CBE’s monetary woes and Hancock replying with a scathing column about the board’s lack of fiscal responsibility and transparency.  Is the CBE in dire need? Has the province provided an adequate increase to the per pupil grant?  Will the cuts to program-specific grants affect learning outcomes, or not?

Hancock and CBE officials both spoke to parents at a meeting in Calgary on Wednesday April 6. Anyone hoping to emerge from the meeting with any clarity would have been disappointed.  The board continued with its dire forecasts. They point to the planned reduction of  172 head office positions that will “cut into the structure of core programs that benefit students.”

Hancock stressed the need for smarter spending and said educators must find ways of doing things differently to achieve positive results.  When asked how – he joked that that was the work of school boards.

While audience members may have laughed at the comment, he’s dead accurate. We elect trustees locally to make these value decisions for us. What do we want our school board to look like? If resources are reduced, what is it that we value the most about our system? Trustees should be engaging their constituents on these issues so they can ensure any changes made next year reflect the needs and wants of the actual owners of the system – Calgarians.

At this point, everything that the CBE reports about the budget is pure conjecture. There is no public budget document. There has been no public debate on anything related to the budget. We don’t know where trustees stand on the issues.  Administration can say they want to trim psychologists, speech therapist and learning leaders, but ultimately, the decision rests with our seven elected trustees.

Chair Pat Cochrane stressed that schools would be funded first, and that administration and central offices would bear the brunt of the cuts. It should be pointed out that exactly the opposite happened last year, when over 285 school-based positions were cut last year, including 192 classroom teachers. Many central office departments actually saw significant budget increases for 2010-11, while class sizes at schools rose dramatically.

Part of the problem is that CBE trustees determine school funding in April, and don’t debate the full budget until June. The Board ran into this last year, with audits of downtown departments, and extra funding from the province, arriving after school budgets had been prepared; too late to direct any extra money to schools.

If Trustees  really are committed to schools, they should have a vigorous public debate about all CBE expenditures much earlier in the budgeting process. You can’t possibly make an informed decision on school spending with only part of the financial picture in place.  This public, open and transparent debate on the budget is needed now. That way, Calgarians can be sure that all possible money in the difficult fiscal year will be directed to schools and students.

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