Opinion: LaGrange stands up to Calgary school trustees

Living within a budget isn’t easy. Living within a leaner budget is even harder.

Albertans have heard a lot about that reality since the provincial budget was handed down one month ago. Not a day goes by without another victim of so-called restraint being held up on the shoulders of special interest groups in a gesture intended to prove that Alberta was better off spending billions of dollars beyond its means.

The fact is the Jason Kenney government is still projecting a deficit $2 billion higher than the year before, when Rachel Notley’s NDP controlled the purse strings.

Some of the higher deficit is due to tax cuts designed to encourage investment and create employment, but the growing red ink is surely a reminder that we need to live within our means.

ALSO READ: The buck stops with Red Deer council

Yes, there’s a little belt tightening to be dealt with in the new budget, but Alberta’s spending will still remain well above the levels in other provinces.

Alberta spends almost $2,500 more per person on public services than other big provinces, but without better results, the government notes in its recent budget.

This is a financial model that no taxpayer or politician would champion — unless they benefit from higher-than-necessary wages and compensation.

If we matched the average per capita expenditure on public services, Alberta would spend $10 billion less each year, which is enough to put the province into a surplus position.

So much for the notion that we need a sales tax so that we can continue to spend more and get less than other provinces.

Most of the noise about the new budget is coming from the school system, which unlike post-secondary education, has largely been given a free pass from the reductions that will be needed to balance the budget.

The worst example of failing to act in taxpayers’ interest is the Calgary Board of Education, which recently announced the cancellation of 300 temporary teachers’ contracts.

Common sense would dictate that teachers would be the last employees to be let go. A thoughtful look at trimming would have put support staff ahead of classroom teachers on the layoff list, unless, of course, the intention was to embarrass the provincial government and create the perception of a crisis where there needn’t be one.

It’s only the Calgary public board, after all, that has announced sweeping layoffs. Other school trustees are making the tough decisions demanded of them.

Thankfully, Red Deer-North MLA Adriana LaGrange, the province’s education minister, is having none of Calgary school trustees’ nonsense.

“Albertans overwhelmingly elected our government to live within our means and get our finances in order. As a public body, the Calgary Board of Education has a responsibility to assist in this endeavour, while still providing its students with a world-class, high-quality education,” said LaGrange.

Appropriately, the minister has ordered an independent financial audit of the Calgary Board of Education, as well as a governance review.

Albertans are entitled to disagree with the government’s direction. That is their right.

School trustees and others tasked with managing scarce public tax dollars should be focused on value for money, however, and make decisions that result in the least negative impact possible. They should save the theatrics for the circus.

David Marsden is managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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