News / Calgary

'Concrete plan' to deal with CBE's congregated stops expected after Thanksgiving: Alberta Education

Alberta Education released the initial findings of their operational review of the Calgary Board of Education on Thursday

The Calgary Board of Education Building. CBE.

Metro File Photo / Calgary Staff

The Calgary Board of Education Building. CBE.

The CBE is expected to have a “concrete solution” in place after Thanksgiving when it comes to how their congregated stop policy has affected those attending alternative programs.

This news comes from the initial findings from an Alberta Education operational audit of the Calgary Board of Education—which indicates they will be working with the board to find a solution for neighbourhoods impacted by the policy.

“The report is exactly what we thought it would be,” said CBE chair Joy Bowen-Eyre. “It’s been a really good experience between us and Alberta Education. There are no surprises whatsoever.”

Education minister David Eggen echoed the sentiments of being a good experience, and said it’s clear to both his ministry and the board that despite the review finding that the CBE’s transportation services “exceeds the requirements of the School Act,” transportation is “clearly an issue.”

According to the five page update, released Thursday morning—and focusing primarily on transportation— Alberta Education will be helping the board look at the policy and find financially sustainable ways to bring existing nearby routes into impacted neighbourhoods, so that students don’t have to travel several kilometers to meet the nearest route at an existing stop.

“This will entail revisiting ride times and finding an appropriate balance number and location of congregated stops and student ride time to alternative program sites,” reads the report.

Alberta Education found that there is a direct relationship between the length of a bus ride and the number of congregated stops on the route.

The CBE’s congregated stop policy is for students at alternative programs and requires a minimum of 10 students preregistered at each stop. If 10 students are not preregistered they are moved to the next closest stop.

Alberta Education said this policy allows for savings when double-routing buses by ensuring the first route is completed with enough time remaining for the same bus to provide service for students attending a second school in a nearby area.

“In many situations, routes with low ridership of less than 30 students have been eliminated and students are required to travel several kilometers to existing stops in nearby neighbourhoods,” reads the report.

The report said that alternative program routes suffer from lower ridership due to the size of the service areas and distance between students.

It said that although alternative programs like French immersion and Traditional learning Centre (TLC) are “very popular”—revenue and fees stemming from charging for transportation to these programs only covers 50-75 per cent of the cost of providing yellow bus service.

Both the minister and Bowen-Eyre said they understand that Calgary families have high expectations when it comes to public education—and transportation, but said there is only so much money.

Eggen said part of his frustration leading up to the review—and during it—was that there was “untrue” information being presented about Bill 1, an act to reduce school fees.

“People were mixing up a very noble and necessary initiative with Bill 1 to reduce school fees somehow making suggestions that Bill 1 was causing transportation chaos and actually increasing fees,” he said.

Eggen said Bill 1 was meant as a “triage of the area of most need.”

“This (reducing instructional fees and transportation fees for eligible students—those who live 2.4 kilometers from their designated school) was the place to start,” he said.

The minister said he’s currently undergoing consultations for possible fall legislation, including looking at the 2.4-kilometer walk limit that dictates if a student is eligible for transportation funding.

“The 2.4 kilometer walk limit has always jumped out as a problem,” he said. “It seems quite arbitrary and for many kids it’s too long.”

Overall, the review found that the CBE’s transportation services “exceeds the requirements of the School Act,” as under the act they are only required to provide the service to eligible students who are attending their designated school and live 2.4 kilometers or more away from the school.

When it comes transportation service levels at the CBE, the report found that regardless of the school a student attends, the level of service they receive is “comparable to other school boards.”

The CBE differs in that the average number of students on each route is lower than the provincial average, particularly for elementary school routes.

Revisions to the CBE’s special needs transportation—in which the board moved away from having schools decided the mode of transportation of the student, mow making those decisions at the board level— saw savings of more than $500,00 this school year.

“CBE expects to reduce their taxi ridership and costs by more than 50 per cent,” said the report.

Although a “more detailed and finalized report” from the review, including comparisons to other large school boards in the province won’t be available until later this year, the update said the CBE’s spending per-student is on par with other metro boards.

“How the funding is spent and allocated to schools differs among the boards, as they respond to and reflect local circumstances,” said the report. “How funding is spent and allocated to schools differ among the boards as they respond and reflect local circumstances.”

A “next step” suggested by the report is the sharing of best practices amongst the metro boards related to programming and funding support methodologies that “may lead to cost savings.”

“In the process we will discuss with our natural counterparts to see if there are best practices we could utilize—or they could utilize from us, so that we’re all operating on the same page,” said Bowen-Eyre.

MORE FROM THE REVIEW:

In terms of the CBE’s total revenue, Alberta Education found that it’s increased 11 per cent in the last three fiscal years from $1.199 billion to $1.326 billion, while total expenditures have increased 10 per cent in the same time ($1.190 to $1.311)

"This has resulted in CBE reporting an annual surplus increasing in all three years ranging from $9.1 million in 2013-14 to $14.6 million in 2015-16."

Brad Grundy, chief financial officer for the CBE, said the board I obligated to submit balanced budgets—and they do every year.

“As such we need to build in a little bit of conservatism as we go through the year, which may result in a surplus at the end of that year,” he said.

Grundy said he’d like to note however, that the CBE invests those dollars almost immediately back into the classroom.

“You’ll see our reserve levels are very modest in comparison to a lot of jurisdictions across the province,” he said.

Administration building:

Alberta Education's review noted that over half of the Central Administration Building’s costs are allocated to instructional programming costs instead of being charged to administration overhead.

"Provincial policy would suggest that such an allocation might be high and requires further analysis."

The lease, which has more than a decade remaining on it, costs more than $13 million annually.

“Everybody in the city must know that that was not a great decision,” said Eggen.
“That building cost more than any of the metro headquarters in the province.”

Compared to the other three metro boards in Alberta, the CBE is the only one that doesn't own their building.

"CBE currently generates revenue under a sublease of the top 2 floors of the Education Centre to commercial tenants. If that sub-lease were to expire, CBE’s revenue from this arrangement could be less than the current agreement due to changed market conditions."

Grundy said the issue has been discussed for a long time in Calgary and preceded most of the CBE’s trustees and current staff, including him.

“Those are costs that we incur under the agreement we have, we have reviewed that document on a regular basis to see if there is opportunities to minimize the cost, move into something different,” he said.  “At this point in time there does not seem to be an alternative but we’re happy to work with the minister and the ministry staff if there are some alternatives—we’d be happy to consider those.”

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