'Difficult to feel optimistic': CBE trustees and administration mull uncertain future

Temporary financial relief at the Calgary Board of Education is being welcomed by administration and trustees alike but as they look toward the future of the CBE, no one knows how to plan. 

The uncertainty has both trustees and administration questioning the future of the board — and public education in general. 

At Tuesday's public board meeting, trustee Mike Bradshaw said that a year ago he would have said public education was "the jewel in the government of Alberta's crown."

Now is a different story. 

It's months after the election — and a $32-million cut to the CBE's provincially allotted budget — and Bradshaw sees things differently. 

"My optimism for the future of education is waning," he said. "I hope I'm wrong. I really do."

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Bradshaw said he worries Alberta's internationally recognized student achievement can't be maintained if cuts continue.

"Which ultimately means the removal of supports for students in the classroom and a more challenging learning environment for everyone," he said. 

'We need to overachieve'

After dipping into maintenance dollars to make ends meet this year, the CBE's chief financial officer Brad Grundy said it's going to take a lot to end the school year debt free — which is required by law. 

"We need to overachieve in terms of savings so that we can get to where we want to by the end of the year," he said. 

Breaking down the finances beyond the $32-million revenue reduction, Grundy said there were other cost escalators that the board has had to address subsequent to the presentation of its spring budget. 

As an example, Grundy said they were advised of changes to the collective agreement with regard to certain employee benefits, which he anticipates will have another $3.5-million impact on the board.

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Further, Grundy said the CBE already had a carried pressure in the spring budget of $5 million. 

"I'm less comfortable that we'll be able to find the full $5 million over the course of the year, so I have noted that against reserves," he said.

'Sense of unease'

Bradshaw wasn't the only trustee to raise concerns on Tuesday over the board's uncertain future, either. 

Trina Hurdman took a moment to acknowledge the toll the past few months had taken on everyone involved — especially for the 317 teachers who didn't know where they would be come January until just days ago when the maintenance money was approved for staffing. 

"I know that they're breathing a sigh of relief right now," she said.

But she also knows that everyone is now looking toward next year and what will happen then.

"I don't think that this temporary relief is dissipating this sense of unease that we all feel right now," she said. 

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"There's just been a lot of uncertainty and that uncertainty continues. We don't know what a new funding framework will look like. All we know is that the government plans to maintain the overall budget in their fiscal year."

On Monday, Hurdman took to Twitter to explain the board was shocked by the $32 million in cuts to their budget, because she said they had been repeatedly told by the UCP that the province was committed to funding enrolment growth.

"Oct. 9 — In the legislature, Finance Minister reiterates commitment to maintain and/or increase education funding and also states 'We're committed to fund enrolment growth,'" she tweeted.

So, while the CBE's dealt with immediate staffing pressures the uncertainty around the funding framework, a looming provincially ordered financial audit and governance review means neither administration or trustees can give employees or parents any certainty about what next year at the CBE will look like. 

Catholic school district also feeling the pinch

They're not alone in that sentiment. The Calgary Catholic School District said they feel it, too. 

On Wednesday, trustees there gave the nod to the board's revised 2019-20 budget. 

It saw the approval of recommendations from administration to manage $11 million in reduced funding, and additional costs of approximately $6 million associated with growth in operations. 

"This shortfall is largely due to the elimination of select government grants occurring mid-year, which has been challenging," CCSD said in a release.

And, while they said through cost saving measures the district did not have to look at decreasing current staffing levels in schools or administration, the shortfall will be covered through the use of savings, increased transportation fees and other reductions.

But the board expressed concern with the reduced funding and depleted reserves.

"We can't possibly maintain all current levels of service given our current funding," said board chair Mary Martin. "We are also aware of the impending changes to our funding this spring and are keeping that in mind as we plan now and into the future."

And, like Martin, the CBE's board chair said these difficult discussions are far from over.

"I would echo the concerns of some of my colleagues when we look ahead to what education funding is going to look like, the impacts the future budget is going to have on our system, and on our schools and ultimately on our students," she said, on the verge of tears.

"I know it's difficult to feel optimistic at times as we look ahead to that."