News / Calgary

Calgary Board of Education spending tens of thousands on 'high-stakes communications firm'

Calgary's public school board has paid tens of thousands of dollars to a self-proclaimed "high-stakes communications firm" despite already having nearly two dozen staff within its own ranks to handle communications work.

Metro has learned that the Calgary Board of Education first engaged Navigator, a well-known organization operating throughout Canada, in 2012.

Sources have said that, in some months, roughly $10,000 was being paid to the organization, which was involved in numerous consultations with board executives and had also developed a strategy for training trustees and staff to properly work with the media.

But the board maintained in a statement given to Metro Oct. 30 that services provided by Navigator were "provided in the context of our solicitor-client relationship" and because the money for the firm was delivered under the board's legal services budget, the amount paid "will not be discussed."

Derek Fildebrandt with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation said the board's relationship with Navigator appears "fishy," adding he suspects they pay for the firm's services out of the legal budget to avoid inquiries made using Alberta's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Fildebrandt said he finds the size of the communications staff employed by the CBE to be large as it is and questioned why they would need to engage a outside firm.

"It's mind-boggling . . . that's more people than the communications office for the Premier of Alberta and probably somewhere in the neighbourhood of the Prime Minister's office's communications staff," he said, adding, "You'd think with that number of staff, they wouldn't need to hire outside help."

Late Tuesday, the board said legal services costs were folded into the budget of Chief Superintendent Naomi Johnson and a specific breakdown for the department was not available. The board said its legal costs, however, were lower in 2013-14 than 2012-13, but again provided no numbers.

Navigator's website outlines services it provides, including "issues management, crisis response, and reputation recovery," as well as "government relations" and "activation and persuasion campaigns."

A request for comment from the firm Tuesday received a written response from managing principal Randy Dawson.

"Navigator provides general strategic advice to clients in many sectors, both private and public," he wrote. "The nature of the advice we provide to any specific client is confidential."

The CBE said Oct. 30 it requires Navigator's services "from time to time," adding the organization provides "specialized strategic services and expertise."

The board also responded to an inquiry about the functions performed by its 23 communications staff.

"Communications Services provides direct service to CBE schools and operations in support of student success," the statement reads. "This includes responding to inquiries from the public, providing school website support, managing the CBE website and portal, providing internal communications to 12,000 employees and external communications to parents, undertaking media relations, event planning, creation of instructional videos, print design and production of reports and photography."

The CBE has come under fire repeatedly in recent months for financial decisions, particularly a move to cut high-school budgets by up to 11 per cent.

CBE trustee chair Sheila Taylor was only informed of the organization’s relationship with Navigator by Metro Tuesday evening and said she would need more information before commenting.

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