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 funneling 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 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.