By Trevor Busch
Assessing the provincial government’s blue ribbon panel report and its potential implications for education, Holy Spirit Catholic School Division trustee Pat Bremner is open to the idea of restraint and finding more efficiencies as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of student learning outcomes and front line delivery.
“I guess I have two separate ways of thinking. One is today, and one is my great-nephew and nieces,” said Bremner, who represents St. Mary and St. Patrick schools in Taber on the division board. “I understand that what I want for them is accessible, quality education. I don’t want that child to be behind the 8-ball. Having said that, I also don’t want today’s children to be denied simply because of misspending by governments. We’re in this position…10 years ago we had $37.1 billion in net financial assets, and right now we have a $27.5 billion deficit. That’s a huge difference, and I don’t think that is entirely due to education, or even health care. I think there’s mismanagement, and indeed Minister of Education Adriana LaGrange has said that the government has intentions of looking at its own house. It will be interesting if that happens — and I think it will, I think those words were spoken with integrity — where we come out of that. After reading the report several times — the first time falling off my chair saying ‘what?’ It’s difficult to read things like that. But we need to clean up our house, there’s no doubt.”
Released last month, one of the key recommendations in the report — also known as the MacKinnon report after its chair, former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon — suggests partly tying funding for Alberta schools to their performance.
“I have concerns when I hear things like better educational outcome linked to funding,” said Bremner. “That makes my neck hair kind of stand on end. We want the best possible outcomes, but we don’t want the teacher teaching to do tests. We have kids — and all school divisions have kids — that are coming in with exceptionally diverse needs. It’s not like every kid comes in knowing A,B,C, and can tie their shoelaces, and has had a good breakfast in the morning, and mom and dad have never had any traffic with drugs or problems in the past. Kids come in in varying stages of emotional and intellectual development, and to start making that child a commodity — which I think would happen, particularly with the most vulnerable.”
Bremner suggests the panel’s funding recommendation more closely follows a model of education utilized south of the 49th parallel, and that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good thing.
“It scares me a bit. I see that this is a bit of an American model. I will say that the Canadian system of education is far superior. We do not have to rely on private education just to get a good education. Good education is available in our public system, and if we want for reasons of our own to use the private system, it’s not because you’re not getting a good education from the public system. So I think high stakes testing is just that, high stakes, and I don’t think that it yields a very good learning environment for some of our vulnerable children.”
The panel also urged the UCP to consider lifting a freeze on post-secondary tuition, work with institutions to set a comprehensive direction for the whole system in the province, as well as assess the viability of some institutions.
“I think that the idea of raising tuition when young people are coming out about to join the workforce riding a $30,000 debt is contrary to what education is supposed to be,” said Bremner. “What happens — and this is my liberal, perhaps leftist thinking — when tuition becomes too high, education only becomes something for the elite. And then we get into the division that we’re trying to get away from now, where blue collar work is as valuable as white collar because it’s a choice. But when it’s not a choice because you can’t afford to go to university, then it is setting up classes. I’m totally opposed to that.”
Another recommendation targets reducing funding that goes towards administration and governance, but Bremner contends Holy Spirit has very little fat to trim in this area.
“Our current figure is 26.4 per cent (provincially), and B.C.’s is 17 per cent. The interesting thing is that Alberta governments in the past have set rules determining board and system administration costs between four and six per cent, depending on the size. Holy Spirit’s costs are four per cent of its expenses, which is really a pittance. We have taken great fiduciary responsibility. And as a matter of fact, in all of my years as a trustee — this will be my sixth year — the money set aside for administration has never been 100 per cent spent. They have returned some of that money to the classroom by carpooling, cutting down on expenses, finding alternate ways to get from ‘A’ to ‘B’, and just doing without.”
One area in which Holy Spirit leads by example, according to Bremner, is in transportation efficiencies through contracts with neighbouring divisions.
“There’s a possibility for cuts on the board. Our board could be smaller if push came to shove, but that would depend partially on the public. The panel talked about other expenses. Holy Spirit, for instance, has efficiencies in transportation which are quite remarkable, because we don’t transport kids. We take all the money we get for transportation and give it to five surrounding districts. We work very hard to align our calendars with theirs, which is really hard work. This provides huge efficiencies.”
Enrollment growth in Alberta since 2007-08 has grown by 16.7 per cent, a figure Bremner believes is not adequately reflected in the comparative examples studied by the MacKinnon panel.
“The comparative provinces used by the blue panel have declined. It’s interesting that the comparative models aren’t always the best in all areas. Enrollment by 16.7 per cent is pretty significant. Comparatively between the provinces, too. We spend — this is all of Alberta under the Alberta School Boards Association — $11,121 on each kid. B.C. spends less, $9,681. But Ontario spends $17,000. So how are we comparing apples to apples?”
The educational delivery model has evolved so radically from the past that achieving positive outcomes for students with varied learning needs cannot be ignored.
“My biggest fear is we have so many kids that are presenting — not only in our division of course, but in every division across Canada — who are presenting with a variety of physical and mental conditions, that in order to learn they need support staff,” said Bremner. “We can’t cut support staff because these kids that are going to be valuable members of society have to be educated.”
Solely blaming the previous NDP government for all of the province’s financial woes is simplistic and frankly incorrect, argues Bremner.
“The biggest thing is the financial asset position of the Government of Alberta declined by $59.2 billion, and it wasn’t just in the last four years. That was the last 10 years. So people pointing fingers just at the NDP are off track. It’s the government, both PCs and NDP.”
Bremner is optimistic about taking a hard look at the division’s finances if such an analysis proves to be warranted, but forcing wholesale cuts to the front line will only undermine the quality of education being delivered in Alberta.
“From a business perspective, there’s always ways to do things better. Always. Holy Spirit runs a pretty lean machine, and I think there is room for more efficiencies. Certainly more collaboration, although Holy Spirit is extremely collaborative. But there’s always room. I just don’t want it to be on the backs of teachers and our front line.”