How to fix the Calgary Board of Education

I’ve been wrestling with the Calgary Board of Education for a couple of years, now. And it’s not for anything complicated. To be honest, all I have is a simple hope: to have my children go to a school where they don’t have to worry about if they’re staying in the school, or if there will be a school at all. Note that this is a “hope”, not anything more concrete…
Over the last couple of years, I’ve come to realize a few nasty things about how the public education system works in this city. The internals of the CBE are highly secretive (finding out who is actually in charge of certain things is about as easy as learning the inner workings of CSIS), and so intensely political that decisions appear to be made utterly at random, against student interests. None of this seems to go through check-and-balance because … well, there’s no accountability to anyone, nor does anyone take responsibility.
As a result the CBE, as a whole, is failing. And that needs to change.
The system is split into three basic parts: the teachers (who generally do an exemplary job, given limited resources), the board administration (at this point, pretty much the polar opposite of the teachers), and the Board of Trustees (elected, but ineffectual).
The teachers are, at the heart of the CBE, the gears that allow the machine to move forward. (I’m sure the board administration would say it’s them. It’s not.) So we’re not going to worry too much about the teachers. Yes, we can delve into the problems of tenure and people past their prime, but those folks have a limited impact.
And while I would love to (figuratively and literally) throw the administration under a bus, that’s a tough challenge. While I see utterly inept planning (bordering on outright lying, which I’ve had happen to my face), impenetrable organization, unavailable communication, and top-down decision-making that gets dictated without input from the bottom, these are not things that we cannot change without pressure from someone else with authority.
And authority, at least with the CBE, seems to necessarily involve the one holding the purse strings.
Every year, the CBE receives about $1.25 billion a year for operating the schools in Calgary. That translates into over $9,000 per student (CBE’s own numbers). Obviously, each student doesn’t see that funding, that’s just an average. Those dollars are broken down into how the CBE operates.
However, there is considerable concern (largely from parents) that the Resource Allocation Method (an algorithm that apparently is subject to privacy laws, so parents can’t actually see it) is funnelling away funds from schools back into the CBE … for something.
It’s the vagueness that’s driving a lot of concerned parents (and yes, I am one) a bit off the edge. The CBE is protecting their own information for unknown purposes. They won’t even disclose the reasons why. It’s like asking your child why they broke your favourite lamp, and with pieces of said broken lamp in their hands, they respond: “I didn’t do it”.
The CBE is not transparent when it comes to funding. Not even close. They’re quick to pull the “privacy” card and not discuss the details. Details that, ultimately, concern the very they’re supposedly protecting. (I do have to ask exactly how my child’s name has been directly attached to operating budgets. That seems a bit wrong to me.)
This all happens for one simple reason: no-one is telling the CBE they’re doing it wrong. Or to be more specific, no-one with authority.
Supposedly, that’s what the CBE’s Board of Trustees is supposed to do. That’s why we elect them. Except that over many years, it’s become exceptionally hard to actually trust our trustees. There’s issues of transparency, being belligerent to the media, ignoring parents (this one I’ve experienced myself), and controversial “closed door” matters. It also doesn’t help that the Board of Trustees apparently voted out their own authority, putting into the hands of the CBE’s Chief Superintendent. You know, the head of the very group the Board of Trustees is supposed to monitor?
I think there’s a better approach: put the very people who have the most vested interest in the CBE’s operations as oversight. We, the parents.
Every year, in every single CBE school across the city, we elect a Parent Council. Every Parent Council follows a set of operating rules, which includes the election of a Chair of the Parent Council.
I propose that these Chairs then form a CBE Parent Chair Council, a group that meets month (or as needed, if matters dictate) to deal with larger issues. They are the ones tasked with broadcasting information from the CBE operations down to the parents of their respective schools. They also help communicate the specific issues from their schools back to the Council.
The Parent Chair Council, in turn, elects from themselves a Board of Governors. The Board of Governors are the replacement for the current Board of Trustees. But this is not a one-for-one swap, as that achieves only a little. In addition to the establishment of a parent-run Board of Governors, we bestow upon them the authority to demand information from the CBE, to which the CBE must comply. (This is something the province needs to enact, as the CBE itself will not change without outside influence.)
Already I can hear the complaints: How is this any different than the mess we currently have?

  1. Parents with children currently in the CBE are in control. Once children have left the CBE, parents become (necessarily) disengaged.
  2. The election of the Board of Governors is an extension of the election of the Chair of a given school’s Parent Council: parents putting trust in one of their own to represent them.
  3. Any member of the Board of Governors can be ousted at any time by the current rules that elect a Chair of Parent Council: someone who loses the trust in their school’s parents would be voted out at the school level, thereby removing that Chair from both the Parent Chair Council and the Board of Governors.
  4. Real authority would be given (again, requiring provincial mandate) that would allow the Board of Governors to truly govern the CBE (see, there’s a reason for the name!). I know this is a sticky part, but I do not see it as unrealistic.

Okay, one major point I know some will raise: where would people find the time to do all of this? I mean, being on the Board of Governors is a lot of work, right?
Yes, it is. Two counters to that point, however:

  • The Board of Trustees already invest a fair bit of time with the existing situation. So it’s not unrealistic.
  • There are parents in this city who are more than willing to invest that time because they believe. Every school has a few of these people, and interestingly, they’re often ones who put themselves up for election as the Chair of their Parent Council.

The other obvious elephant is the teeth the province needs to bestow upon the Board of Governors. This is not a trivial aspect, but it is something that can be readily defined. It’s not like we don’t see similar constructs for other “watchdog” agencies who ultimately can deliver painful judgements against governments and/or industries.
It is time for the parents to take back their schools, and require more of an organization that demands more and more, while delivering less and less. Parents get engaged very quickly, and can do a far better job as a collective interest than long-standing obstacles who march only to their political aspirations.

5 thoughts on “How to fix the Calgary Board of Education”

  1. Geoff,
    You make some really good points here, but I have some counterpoints to propose:
    1) First, having “interested” parents run the decision making process poses certain difficulties. For example, each parent comes with their own agenda, biases and yes prejudices. I shudder at times when Alberta education consults with parents on what a good curriculum is — because opinions are provided based on their personal experience. I believe parents are an important stakeholder in the decision making process, and they should have a voice, but not the driving force. To this end, lets have a Board of Governors that are knowledgeable about managing resources (money, facilities, and other assets) combined with experts in education delivery and parents.
    2) I have no time for “trustees” either. I have written to our trustee on numerous occasions, both as a concerned parent, and as voice as President of our Community Association. These letters have gone unanswered. Follow Up phone calls have also gone unresponsive. Still, she is re-elected time after time. Recall back when Lyle Oberg fired the entire Trustee board because they could not get along? Those were good times. Some of those trustees are now (or former) MLAs!
    3) I cannot comment on the ‘quality’ of administration of the CBE. I’m sure they’re very nice people. From my experience, the CBE administration lacks detailed information that would help make good decisions. A couple of examples here:
    – when my daughter was in Grade 1, they decided to close her school and send her to another school – further away by bus. My question to the Area Supervisor at the time was how much would the CBE save by doing this. She said the savings would be 1/2 a principals salary ($50,000 at the time), because all teachers would be re-allocated across the CBE, and face it, the kids were being expelled from the CBE – just the school was closing. Minimal savings from closing the school would occur, because the school still needed maintenance (heating, water, cleaning, etc.) That building still exists today and god only knows what happens in that building. Its prime real estate too – so the property could have been sold and proceeds re-invested into education. What could NOT be answered, though, was what were the incremental costs to CBE by making this transfer? Longer school bus rides were on hand for my daughter; not to mention now a swath of new bus riders who would traditionally walk to school would need a ride. It would seem to me that those minute savings would easily be wiped out by the incremental cost; however, these were not considered.
    – a couple of years back, when the CBE introduced the notion of increased bus fees for alternative programs, I attended some information sessions. My question to ‘management’ at the session was how that decision to charge extra to the FI students was replied with anecdotal comments at best. Their ‘theory’ was that it cost more to transport FI students because those schools were further away. Numerous examples were cited by parents that indeed in many cases, a FI school was closer than a “regular” school. The myth of transporting FI students as being more expensive was debunked! I pressed on with ‘management’ asking just how much it cost the CBE to transport a child one km by bus could not be answered (pretty simple question I thought). I pressed on asking how they could not know this number – as surely this is an important figure to have on hand, particularly when you are planning for new schools. Minimizing bussing costs should surely be considered when building new schools. Apparently not. My bad. But I know in business, when you plan a new service, you consider the costs and location.
    – the other thing the CBE has not reconciled, is how much it costs their decision to allow bussing for students who are not within their radius of the school. The government’s radius calculation is different than what the CBE has determined optimal. This would be good to know. Furthermore, from my understanding, is that the contract for bussing allows the bus company to set routes and bill the CBE. This arrangement is akin to handing the keys to the fox to guard the hen house. Have these contracts been audited to ensure they are getting value for service and costs? I doubt it – the CBE is happy to pass along the increased costs annually to the parents. Hey – problem solved!
    4) Having us both grow up in the Halton board, I don’t recall “premium” schools that had science schools, mandarin bilingual, Spanish schools, German bilingual etc. We had English schools, and a FI program, and Spanish classes – but these were not contained in a stand-alone school or separate facility. They were amalgamated into ‘regular’ schools. I am not against these programs – but they do cost money to provide. In these frugal times, should the CBE consider offering only ‘basic’ education. Should Premium or Alternative programs might be offered on a cost recovery basis? It seems the CBE is offering a Corvette service on a Chevette budget!
    5) How is it the other school boards (I cite Rockyview School District) manage their budgets better? CBE has a huge economy of scale, and should be able to deliver more efficiently than smaller school boards. Have they consulted with these smaller boards and compared budgets? Where is the waste – what fat can be trimmed? Let’s compare!
    I doubt these comments will change anything – but let’s start the revolution to get change a happening!

  2. Hey Neil!
    1) Agreed. The “education” part will always be hard, but my experience suggests that those people would readily educate themselves … or get their butts handed to them by the parents they’re supposed to represent. The key thing in my proposal was that the Chair can be voted out at any time, if the school’s Parent Council believes that the Chair isn’t acting in their best interests. It’s not perfect, no, but it avoids the “I don’t have to listen to you, I was just elected” problem we currently face.
    2) Don’t even get me started on my “Trustee”. (I shall not name her here because she doesn’t deserve being recognized.) Again, why I want my fellow parents to be able to call out a misbehaving representative immediately and put them on notice.
    I know I won’t always agree with everyone else, and yes, I could be put in a minority where everyone else thinks that the Chair is acting fine. Joys of democracy, right?
    3) Yep, you identified some of the key problems with how the CBE’s ability to plan has consistently — and painfully — failed parents across the city for decades. My school has been going through an accommodation for the last near-six years because the CBE cannot plan, at all. They do not forecast remotely well, and they box everything into 3 year chunks. This, despite the wealth of information that both the province and the city have at their disposal.
    The closing of schools is a moronic move that has bitten the CBE constantly — we close schools when we are 25 schools short within the city. How does any of that make any sense? Yet they’re perfectly happy to discard one because of “low” attendance, without rebalancing or (heaven forbid) leasing the space for other purposes until the need rises again. Which it always does.
    4) Being in an alternative (Spanish) program, I do have a different perspective on this. Ideally, the cost difference should be nil — it’s an education program, pure and simple. However, the CBE (for some reason) treats all of these programs specially, creating the unique schools. As you’ve pointed out exactly, they’re messing with resource allocation, and making a mess of things. That’s not the fault of the programs, though.
    Obviously, the cost different isn’t actually nil — there’s differences in materials (textbooks in different languages, for example), and sometimes with facilities (such as the technical schools). However, that’s a good thing. Halton had schools such as that (e.g. General Wolfe), which benefitted from isolation. However, the “normal” schools also benefitted greatly from a blending of programs — allowing kids to take a French class from an FI teacher was beneficial to everyone. The CBE would do well to consider that ability.
    5) Y’know, that’s a painfully good question, and I’d be willing to suggest that it’s because Rockyview’s administration isn’t a complete mess. The CBE has been a disaster for a very long time (I’ve spoken with a number of parents who have had to deal with the CBE over the last 30 years), and it seems it’s an endemic problem that’s never been cleared up.
    What will change the CBE? Authoritative oversight, outright transparency (short of student names, of course), and a willingness to actually work with parents on solutions, rather than ignore them (or worse, lie to them).

  3. Looking through your resume, I can see why you are impatient with the CBE. You raise some valid and serious concerns.
    You should be able to get a copy of the RAM booklet from your trustee or from your principal. But since you can’t, you’ll find a copy here:
    Speaking of CAPSC, that’s kinda-sorta-supposed-to be something like a board of school council chairs.
    There are also COSC meetings (e.g. Thursday this week).
    You said: “It is time for the parents to take back their schools, and require more of an organization that demands more and more, while delivering less and less. Parents get engaged very quickly, and can do a far better job as a collective interest than long-standing obstacles who march only to their political aspirations.”
    I would love that. I haven’t seen parents get engaged very quickly. Or parents that are willing to put in the time and energy it takes to change a system that has decades of inertia. But please, prove me wrong. Gather a group of interested parents and start making your voices heard. Start requiring change. Don’t wait for permission, or for someone with a magic “authority” wand. As soon as you can show that you’ve got a dozen parents with similar concerns and requests, people (and media) start to pay attention.

    1. Hi Involved!
      (Side note: thank you for being involved. There’s not enough of us, it seems…)
      We’ve tried to get the current RAM information, but that’s the one we’ve been blocked on in the past. Older ones are available, but we’re told it changes year-to-year.
      I love the idea of CAPSC, I only wish that it had teeth to really do anything. The CBE has fingers in their ears, and then even had the gall to cut their funding, to add insult to injury. I would love to see CAPSC roll into something more stringent and powerful!
      To your last point, that’s the biggest stumbling block, and (I think) the biggest opportunity. My school has had a large turn out of parents, largely due to a painfully drawn-out accommodation process. I think if more information were available to parents, unlike how the CBE likes to hide most of it at the moment, it would help inform parents about what’s going on. Also, giving them the direct vote to elect a Chair into a wider council might spur more parents to be active. We’ll never get 100%, but hopefully those who do become more active will help drive the overall goal.

  4. It seems like the cbe is stuck in a different Era and they seem very I’ll prepared to handle the growth and demand of Calgary’s population. They an organization that is increasingly top-heavy – too many managers- with no improvemention in outcomes. The educators that have been ‘promoted’ to administration lack basic skills and know how to run a large organization. I went to the cbe website today to try and locate their budget. There was a 3 line operating budget. Expenses. Revenues. Deficit. That is not a budget!!!
    What can parents do? The trustee and area manager won’t even return my calls and emails.

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