Calgary school board rife with ‘turmoil,’ short-term thinking: report

Calgary school board rife with ‘turmoil,’ short-term thinking: report

CALGARY — An independent review has found the Calgary Board of Education focuses too much on protecting individual members and not enough on its broader mission and long-term finances.

“Overall, the findings are indicative of an organization that has undergone turmoil at the governance level with a focus on process over function and a short-term view of financial sustainability,” accounting firm Grant Thornton wrote in a report released Thursday.

Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange issued a ministerial order, effective immediately, based on 19 recommendations in the report.

They include hiring a minister-approved governance instructor and evaluating ways to reduce risks associated with the pricey headquarters building the board leases in downtown Calgary.

It also recommends the board consider eliminating all half days to save on transportation costs and do an updated salary survey.

“The overall findings lead me to believe that there is a dire need for improvement,” said LaGrange, who was a trustee for the Red Deer Catholic Regional School Division for more than 11 years.

“Perhaps the most concerning of all is the finding that the board’s short-term view focused more on protecting individuals on the board rather than fulfilling their overall mission.”

LaGrange said the board has until Nov. 30 to meet all recommendations, or trustees will be fired.

She said it’s a realistic target, even as the COVID-19 pandemic keeps schools shuttered.

The board acknowledged in a statement that there is always room to improve.

“The citizens of Calgary expect that we will be good stewards of public dollars and we will continue to spend those dollars to support student learning,” it said.

It noted much in LaGrange’s order has already been addressed as part of the board’s 2020-21 budget, including rehiring teachers and transportation changes.

Trustees added they already get advice from outside experts, but “we look forward to expanding our complement of governance coaches.”

The board said it has recently been exploring buying its head office building, for which it signed a 20-year lease almost a decade ago when the market was much more robust. Subletting space is not an option in the current market, it said.

LaGrange ordered the $125,000 financial audit and governance review of the province’s biggest public school board last fall.

She said at the time that she was disappointed the board announced it would lay off more than 300 contract teachers instead of working with her ministry to find other ways to cover a $32-million budget shortfall.

The teacher cuts were averted after the province allowed a $15-million infrastructure and maintenance renewal grant to be repurposed.

In November, LaGrange accused the board of “reckless misuse of taxpayer dollars.”

The Grant Thornton report did not use language nearly that strong to describe the improvements it said should be made. The board said it was pleased the review found no financial improprieties or irregularities.

The report highlighted some things the board has done well, such as keeping maintenance and planning costs in line with other big city school boards and having appropriate procurement practices.

Sarah Hoffman, the NDP Opposition’s education critic, said the review is about finding someone else to blame for education cuts made by the United Conservatives government.

“About 5,000 new students are expected to attend CBE schools next year and their total funding is still less than it was under the last NDP budget,” she said in a statement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 21, 2020

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press

Education

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