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CBE review complete: Ed Minister tells trustees to fix things or be removed

The Calgary Board of Education’s (CBE) failure to meet a 19-point roadmap for fiscal and governance changes could result in the board’s dismissal this fall.

That’s the decree from Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, who discussed the findings of a Calgary Board of Education (CBE) audit Thursday.

“The report was extremely eye opening and provides a lot of insight into the CBE’s operations,” Minister LaGrange told reporters Thursday.

“I’m concerned that I have a division that is more interested in building empires than serving children.”

The CBE had been brought under review by the provincial government to address decision making and its use of the $1.2 billion in education funds.

LaGrange launched the $125,000 CBE review in December of 2019 to address what she had previously said as a history of questionable decision making.

Cuts to funding prompted the CBE to layoff 300 teachers on temporary contracts earlier this year.

Minister LaGrange called the cuts “reckless” and ordered a review of the organization by an independent firm, Grant Thornton LLP.

No specific mention of irregular spending was included in the Grant Thornton LLP report.

In a statement released by the CBE Board of Trustee in response to this financial review. They said they were pleased the review didn’t show any “financial irregularities or improprieties”.

“A number of the directives in the Ministerial Order have already been addressed as part of CBE’s 2020-21 budget,” the board of trustee statement reads.

Summary of the CBE Review findings

The scope of the Grant Thornton review covered the elected board, financial management, funding allocation as it pertained to program delivery, control of public information, and primary cost centres.

“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,” the report read.

The report said the CBE’s policy governance model, which delegates responsibility to the Chief Superintendent, “lacks key aspects of accountability for financial risk management and overall value for money of program expenditures…”

It also showed that the CBE had $9 million in uncommitted operating reserves (0.7 per cent of annual budget), while other Alberta school districts had four per cent. Grant Thornton said this had been brought to the attention of CBE management, no actions were taken to improve the reserves. The report suggested obtaining outside risk management and audit skills to help.

It also outlined the nagging expense of the Calgary Board of Education’s education centre. The CBE occupied the building beginning in 2011. According to the review it pays $47 per square foot, and increasing by 2.5 per cent annually. They said the current market rate is $16 to $20 per square foot lower.

The report said they should continue to pursue sublets and to reallocate staff to other buildings as opportunities arise.

The review also suggested the CBE conduct a third-party salary survey to ensure the salary ranges of exempt staff reflect the current economic climate.

Two areas where the CBE fared well in the review were in custodial staffing costs and general procurement processes. The report showed that maintenance costs were good and even recently improved.

Opposition NDP said province is playing a ‘blame’ game

In a prepared statement, NDP education critic, Sarah Hoffman said the province was looking for a scapegoat for their education budget cuts.

Hoffman claimed that per-student funding has been in decline with the UCP government. Adjustments have been made in Grade 1 to 3 and in Grade 10 to 12, but the base student funding for Grade 4 to 9 has remained stable, according to government documents.

“Today’s review is all about finding someone else to blame for the generational cuts to education imposed by Jason Kenney and the UCP,” Hoffman’s statement read.

“The UCP is ignoring the very really [sic] challenges of students learning at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Education advocacy group calls the province’s CBE review ‘suspect’

Barbara Silva, a public education advocate for Support Our Students Alberta said the provincial government’s audit “seems like a very clear and directed attack on public education.”

Silva claims that LaGrange framed the argument against public education in her early December speech to fire the board of trustees for misuse of education funds.

“(LaGrange) said then that the board had reckless spending, which the audit did not find,” she said.

Silva went on to criticize the timing of the review calling it “suspect” as she believes LaGrange’s focus was misplaced during this pandemic.

“The focus should be in school relaunch and preparing schools, teacher and staff for that relaunch. Not in picking fights with public school boards.” she said

“We are looking to her for leadership not for a parental finger wagging.”

Board trust

The Grant Thornton report also highlighted the importance of board trust for effective governance.

In January, former trustee Lisa Davis resigned, alleging secrecy and an in-camera decision that “once again flies in the face of accepted democratic processes and true transparency.”

That was with respect to the CBE audit and review.

The Grant Thornton report said that when trust isn’t present, or is lost, it stifles the effectiveness of the board.

“In our view, this has resulted in the CBE Board of Trustees becoming excessively focused on internal process related matters and policy interpretation rather than the strategic matters at hand (form over substance),” it read.

Ministerial order: Comply or be removed

An order that outlines 19 recommendations to improve the processes was signed May 21 by Minister LaGrange.

According to the order, the CBE must provide a written update by July 31, then again at the end of each month afterward. They will need to complete all requirements by November 30.

A follow up release from the province said that should the board not complete the recommendations by Nov. 30, it will result in the dissolution of the board of trustees.

Minister LaGrange told reporters that she briefed the CBE Wednesday and they had already begun moving forward on some recommendations.