The Calgary Board of Education’s Response to the Blue Ribbon Panel on Alberta’s Finances Report

Sep. 26, 2019

The report and recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Alberta's Finances1 were publicly released in early September. The Board of Trustees of the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) have taken the time to carefully examine the areas of the report that pertain to K-12 education, as well as the associated KPMG report2, and is now prepared to share its response.

We expect that as the provincial government determines how it will fund K-12 education and considers the recommendations contained in the Blue Ribbon Panel's report that it will recognize that:

  • Alberta already spends 15 per cent less per student than comparable provinces and has already undergone 8 years of spending restraint in K-12 education; 
  • The complexity and diversity of student needs within our classrooms continues to grow even faster than student enrolment growth; 
  • Any transformation of service delivery models requires upfront investments; 
  • The maintenance of school buildings is just as important as building new schools to accommodate growth; and 
  • Increased spending on education has direct economic benefits as well as indirect social benefits that will benefit Alberta now and for decades to come. 

Alberta spends 15 per cent less than the average of other provinces on K-12 education

A major conclusion of the report is that Alberta is spending more in comparison to the average of the provinces of British Columbia (BC), Ontario, and Quebec. When it comes to K-12 education, however, the data provided in the report does not support this conclusion. The report shows that Alberta spends $11,121 per student on K-12 education, while the average of the other three comparison provinces is $13,0283. This means that Alberta is actually spending 15 per cent less on K-12 education than the average of BC, Ontario and Quebec.

Education has already been under fiscal restraint for the past eight years

The report states that total education expenditures over the past ten years have increased by an average of 3.5 per cent per year while student population growth has been 1.5 per cent per year. Not included was the fact that inflation over that same time period was another 1.5 per cent per year and that the largest spending increases were from 2008-11 due to the province fulfilling contractual obligations that far exceeded growth and inflation. Since 2011-12, if provincial funding had kept pace with the inflation rate in Calgary, the CBE would have received $99 million more in 2018-19.4

Class sizes have increased due to an effective decrease in funding

According to the most recent Fraser Institute report on education spending5, after accounting for inflation, Alberta spent the most per student in public schools in 2010-11 and has spent less ever since. It is no coincidence that class sizes across the province have also risen every year since 2010-11 and are now higher than in 2004 when the government determined that class sizes were too large6.

Alberta caps administration and governance expenditures at 3.6 per cent to 5.4 per cent

As a large school board, the maximum amount that the CBE is allowed to spend on system administration and school board governance expenses is 3.6 per cent. It is unclear what the report is referring to when it states that Alberta currently spends 24.6 per cent on administration or if this is even comparable to the average of the three other provinces at 22.7 per cent. For example, there are significant reporting differences7 between B.C. and Alberta that call into question the comparability of information. Without more precise breakdowns and definitions, it is impossible to know if we are comparing apples to apples, or in which areas we should be looking for further efficiencies. What we do know is that we are continually examining our own allocations8 in order to best support student learning, and that if there are any specific suggestions on how this can be improved, we are always open to hearing them.9

Simply maintaining total education funding is not an option

We were pleased to see that the report recommends ensuring that the funding formula addresses student enrolment growth. However, funding for enrolment growth only does not address increasing costs, such as inflation. It also does not consider that the number of students with complex learning needs is growing at a much faster rate than enrolment. According to the recent provincial operational review of the CBE, over the five years examined, the number of students with complex learning needs grew by 67 per cent while overall CBE student enrolment growth was 12 per cent10. Every year the CBE spends $80 million more than we receive in funding to support these students, which means that limited dollars are already being redirected from other areas. We need adequate funding for the specialized supports and services that these students require.

Greater collaboration for long-term savings requires upfront investment

We appreciated the report's recommendation on working towards fostering collaboration within the education system rather than competition. There is so much expertise across this province and we need to find more effective ways of sharing best practices in order to reduce the workload on overburdened staff while improving student learning outcomes. However, initiatives that result in long-term savings and better outcomes always require upfront investments to be effective. For example, a new curriculum could result in improved student outcomes, but only if appropriate training and new supporting materials are provided to the thousands of staff who will be responsible for implementing it. A more collaborative procurement system could result in savings, but only after funds have been deployed to design, implement and transition to the new system over time. Attempting to transform services without an upfront investment may not achieve the desired results without impacting other services. 

Attention is needed around the maintenance of school buildings

We agree with the report's findings that the province has favoured building new capital projects at the expense of maintaining and renovating existing facilities. While we continue to need new schools to accommodate enrolment growth, especially at the high school level where the CBE will be at 100 per cent capacity within three years, we also recognize that 55 per cent of our schools (134 buildings) are over 50 years old. The CBE currently spends $10 million more than we receive in plant operations and maintenance funding each year and the province estimates that our unfunded deferred maintenance costs for immediate needs is $162 million.

Direct economic impacts arise from investing in education

The report was also clear that beyond examining its spending, Alberta also needs “to look at measures that will grow and diversify the economy, create jobs and increase revenues over time." The premise of decreasing corporate taxes, which results in lower provincial revenues, to directly benefit the economy, could also be applied to education spending. Increased education spending has direct economic benefits in addition to a myriad of indirect long-term social benefits that will ultimately decrease pressures on public services. In June, the Conference Board of Canada released a report on education spending in Ontario where three of the key findings were:

  • Each dollar of public education spending generates $1.30 in total economic impacts to Ontario. At the same time, the inverse holds true for each dollar taken from public education.
  • Public education can generate social benefits, such as a healthier population, a higher standard of living, and a reduction in crime. That lessens demand for Ontario's social assistance, public health care, and criminal justice services.
  • Each additional high school graduate saves the Ontario government (on average)
    $2,767 each year on social assistance, health care, and criminal justice, while each additional high school non-completer costs the province $3,128 each year.11
     

The education of Alberta's children is truly an investment in our current and future society and needs to be recognized as such. 

 


 

1 Report and Recommendations: Blue Ribbon Panel on Alberta's Finances. August 2019      

2 Research & Analysis for use of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Alberta's Finances. KPMG, August 15, 2019

3 Total expenditures per student shown on page 35 for: BC - $9,681; ON - $17,077; QC - $12,325. However, the report also notes that “Consolidated views for British Columbia and Ontario do not exist; expenditures by school boards for these provinces were included using estimating assumptions."

4 Calculated using Statistics Canada Calgary inflation rates

5 MacLeod, Angela, and Joel Emes (2019). Education Spending in Public Schools in Canada. Fraser Institute.

6 Report of the Auditor General of Alberta - October 2015

7ASBA News “You can't compare apples to oranges" 

8 Dividing the Dollar:  How Every Cent of Alberta Education Funding Supports CBE Schools attached.

9 Detailed information on CBE budgets and audited financials as well as a link to a budget feedback form can be found on our budget and financial information page. 

10 Calgary Board of Education (CBE) Financial Review Report. Alberta Education. April 2018

11The Economic Case for Investing in Education. The Conference Board of Canada. June 2019.