Braid: Calgary Board of Education deserves its provincial investigation
Published on: June 12, 2017 | Last Updated: June 13, 2017 10:59 AM MDT
Calgary Board of Education offices building. GAVIN YOUNG / POSTMEDIA
The NDP government doesn’t seem to have any malice toward the Calgary Board of Education. Mystification is the main reaction. It’s shared by a great many Calgarians.
The province will send a team into the board offices in August to investigate finances. The probe might continue right through the October election for new trustees, depending on what’s uncovered when the experts peel back this bloated onion.
The decision to investigate was approved right after the board waved a red flag at Education Minister David Eggen.
“If the minister is concerned with any aspect of our plan, then he needs to make that clear to us, and if he plans on changing any part of our plan, then he needs to provide funding in order to make those changes,” said CBE vice-chair Trina Hurdman.
She was talking about Eggen’s criticism of $700 busing fees for students attending alternative programs.
The statement was, any way you read it, both a challenge and an order to Eggen.
CBE Board of Trustees Chair Joy Bowen-Eyre (C) and vice chair Trina Hurdman (L) speak at a press conference in Calgary on Thursday June 8, 2017 and address the CBEÕs plan for transportation service for the 2017-18 school year. Jim Wells/Postmedia JIM WELLS / POSTMEDIA
The New Democrats were furious. They wonder about a number of things, quite apart from the board’s habitual arrogance and undemocratic nature.
The CBE is the only board in the province that has a big problem with budgets. There are modest issues in some areas — deficits of $1 million to $3 million — but only the CBE has a whacking shortfall of $38 million. And, yet, it’s receiving $54 million more this year alone.
And why is it that the Calgary Catholic School Division, half the size of the public board, needs only $2 million to ease school fees, while the CBE gobbles up $18 million — and then demands more?
The government is understandably mystified; also, deeply annoyed.
So the accountants will arrive for what is now billed by both sides, with frozen smiles, as a friendly collaboration.
One thing is already clear: The CBE is in no position to make demands. The trustees can’t even complain about a provincial attack on an elected body, since they serve no useful democratic function.
The CBE that boasts of “transparency” once held public consultations after officials had already imposed changes to bus routes.
Trustees are elected every four years to represent city wards, but they rarely voice an opinion independent of a board decision. If fact, they’re forbidden to do that.
Former CBE trustee Sheila Taylor. LYLE ASPINALL / POSTMEDIA
When former trustee and chair Sheila Taylor tried to speak out early in her tenure, she was chastised by officials, and even told she was in legal conflict of interest for voting on school fees.
Because she was a parent. On a school board.
This board once threatened to cut teaching positions while holding lavish dinners for officials. In 2014, a “leadership” gathering at Willow Park Golf and Country Club cost more than $2,000.
The board spent $573 on coffee, drinks and muffins for a four-hour meeting to discuss . . . the budget.
The government isn’t yet flagging radical action like the 1999 firing of the entire board by Lyle Oberg, then the PC education minister. The consequences, if any, will depend on what the investigation uncovers.
Meanwhile, let us close with a parable about the perils of arrogance in public life.
There once was a young education reporter with Metro, Jeremy Nolais, who wrote about a secret vote to delay release of a financial report.
The next day, he got a surprising phone call from six trustees — the whole crew, except for the board chair.
They proceeded to ream him out, when they weren’t arguing with each other.
They demanded to know his sources. Joy Bowen-Eyre, now the board chair, said Nolais’ job was to be “like the eighth trustee” — that is, a loyal representative of the board.
Nolais recorded the whole extended conversation. Metro published the audio and a written transcript.
The board members apologized, but not before their true feelings about “transparency” had been vividly revealed.
The NDP won the election a year later. Nolais left Metro to become Eggen’s communications adviser.
Before long, he rose to become the minister’s chief of staff. Not yet 30, he was dealing with policy and implementation.
When the phone rings in the CBE board office today, it’s quite likely to be Jeremy Nolais saying, “having a good day, are we? Let’s take a look at those books.”
This is karma on a grand scale. No public body deserves it more.
Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald