CBE says repurposing maintenance dollars won't compromise student safety

The Calgary Board of Education said repurposing maintenance dollars for staffing won't compromise student safety. 

The CBE is one of a handful of Alberta school boards — so far — who have been given the green light by the province to do this, after the province offered school boards the option to apply for one-time access to funding usually earmarked for maintenance to instead support staffing. 

"It's an opportunity that we certainly appreciate the option and we recognize the challenge," said CBE chief superintendent Christopher Usih. "We did not move in this direction lightly."

Usih said he's done significant analysis.

"Recognizing that yes, of course it'd be ideal if we had all sorts of funds to address this, but absent of those ideas we believe that this opportunity is one that presents us an opportunity to move forward," he said. 

"And it's one that we believe will allow us to address our immediate budget pressures."

Those pressures include the recent decision to cut 300 temporary teachers after the province slashed the board's budget by $32 million.

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Wards 11 and 13 trustee Julie Hrdlicka said she is thankful that there is money to address this pressing staffing issue, she also understands concerns, but said the decision reflects their priorities.

"The other side of the coin tells us that we're making a choice between a safe building and a teacher in a classroom," she said. "Budgets are about values … What do we prioritize? What does the government value? Our values are our students and that is what we're showing right here."

The CBE said taking money out of their maintenance will put stress on deferred maintenance — already pegged at  $162 million, with an additional $759 million identified in building components working but beyond their expected life cycle.

"Most definitely we'll have to reevaluate the planning that had been approved back June 2019," said CBE superintendent of facilities and environment, Dany Breton. 

But, Breton said he'd be remiss not to underscore the fact that in 2015-16, the total IMR allocation for the city was $20.4 million.

"And so with $37.5 million, subtract the $15 million and we're still sitting at $22.5 million within infrastructure maintenance," he said. "So that does allow us to be able to conduct quite a bit of work."

Sarah Laughton, the mom of a grade 7 student in a brand new French immersion program at F.E. Osborne school, attended the CBE's public board meeting on Tuesday with two other concerned mothers.

"In our specific scenario … we're in a pioneering program and our teachers were especially recruited to create a new culture and atmosphere and program," she said.

A few weeks ago Laughton said her daughter came home and told her that both the Grade 7 teachers in the new program had been given layoff notices, and likely wouldn't be returning after Christmas.

"I just really wanted to hear today something about are they looking at these 300 teaching positions in the face of maybe having some new money available," she said. 

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"Are they prioritizing which teachers are a higher priority to keep in fact of what's at stake for the students who are in the situations that they're in?"

But Laughton said they were told it's early days and the board doesn't have all the answers yet.

"I didn't really hear my answer specifically," she said. 

"I certainly learned that the CBE cares about if they're taking money out of a maintenance budget whether the schools will be safe for the students, and that was heartening for me as a parent."

According to CBE board chair Marilyn Dennis, the one-time access to these funds to support staffing is "a gift."

"It gives us a little more time to adjust to our our new budget realities. So that's really helpful," she said.

"And of course being able to deal with our new budget realities in a way that we will minimize as much as possible the impact to students in classrooms."

And while CBE administration couldn't say exactly what these means for the 300 teacher who received layoff notices, they said that next week they'd present the board with a more in-depth report.

"But I think we understand the purpose of this opportunity  and this opportunity is to address students in the classrooms," said Usih.