Alberta education minister critical of Calgary school board over staff cuts

CALGARY — Alberta’s education minister is ordering a financial audit and governance review of the Calgary Board of Education after 300 temporary teachers were told they would be losing their jobs in the new year due to a budget shortfall.

Adriana LaGrange says she’s extremely disappointed with the board that oversees Calgary’s public schools.

“When you look at the fact that they have a $1.2-billion budget serving 130,000 students and their only recourse in their decision-making is to cut teachers, it’s unacceptable,” she said in Edmonton on Wednesday.

The board had said the United Conservative government’s budget left it with a $32-million budget gap that would mean cutting funds to 246 schools by $22 million.

Chief Supt. Christopher Usih said the board had to act quickly because the budget was reduced mid-year and several decisions are being made on how to cover the gap.

The board of trustees said it is confident in its financial and governance practices and will co-operate with any review.

“We submit all required financial information to the ministry monthly, quarterly and annually. We continue to receive clean audits that show our financial results are fully compliant with legislation, regulation and Canadian accounting standards,” the trustees said in a statement.

“In a large organization that welcomes all students and serves very diverse needs we have made decisions within the financial constraints under which we operate.”

LaGrange said she made it clear she expected all school boards to minimize the impact on front-line staff and teachers, and to put students’ education first.

“I offered all the school boards the opportunity to have the expertise of my department, help them out if they found themselves in any difficulties, and they have not availed themselves of that,” she said.

No one from the board mentioned layoffs when she met with officials Monday, she added.

In an earlier statement, LaGrange accused the board of a “reckless misuse of taxpayer dollars.” She pointed to its decision to enter into an expensive 20-year lease almost a decade ago and a $9.1-million accounting error found in a 2018 provincial audit.

Sarah Hoffman, education critic for the Opposition NDP, said the UCP government bears responsibility because it was warned its budget cuts would result in teacher layoffs.

“The UCP government said that they were going to fund enrolment growth. They didn’t. They said they were going to protect education. They’re cutting it,” Hoffman said in Edmonton.

“And here we are mid-year dealing with those consequences and kids are paying the price and teachers are losing their jobs.”

Alberta Teachers’ Association president Jason Schilling said LaGrange has not explained how to effectively run a school board with such a budget shortfall.

“If she thinks that she could do better, then I would like her to show us how that’s done, because we are seeing boards impacted by this budget across the province.”

Schilling said morale has taken a hit as teachers will now face larger classes. He also noted that having teachers leave mid-year will be disruptive to young students.

“Every kid loves their teacher when they’re in elementary school, and once that teacher’s gone, it must be hard to reconcile that.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 20, 2019.

— With files from Dean Bennett in Edmonton

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press

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