EDMONTON — The Canadian Taxpayers Federation has renewed its call for the Alberta School Boards Association to post detailed receipts online, citing $41,000 in questionable expenses such as staff Easter egg hunts and birthday gifts.
The taxpayer watchdog is also calling for the ASBA to be subject to freedom of information requests.
The CTF released a document Thursday that shows ASBA staff were treated to birthday and Christmas gifts, “team-building” Easter egg hunts and lunches, and tickets to local events. The document, titled “Staff Item Information,” details more than $41,000 in expenses from 2012 to 2014.
It shows staff members received $50 birthday gift cards and “cake days” to celebrate office birthdays each month. Over three years, $1,800 was spent on cake and $3,050 on gift cards.
“Most Albertans would be happy their boss acknowledged their birthday with a simple greeting card,” said CTF Alberta Director Paige MacPherson in a news release.
“Since 2012, this taxpayer-funded organization has spent $4,850 on staff birthdays instead of on books for students.”
According to the document, the ASBA’s 22 staff members received an annual Christmas gift worth $100 to $150, totalling $7,803 over the past three years. Just over $5,000 was spent on Christmas parties during the same time period.
The document also shows a staff Easter egg hunt in 2014 that cost more than $900. The hunt was also held in 2013, when it cost $315.
“The obvious question is, why would you hold an Easter egg hunt for adults? But just as important, how did it cost $900?” said MacPherson.
“Were these Easter eggs gold-plated?”
The CTF also pointed out that the ASBA spent $3,500 on Taste of Edmonton tickets for staff and $2,700 on staff appreciation lunches. Two off-site planning sessions cost nearly $8,000 each, one at the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald and the other at the Royal Glenora Club.
In total, the document shows $41,163.47 was spent on staff gifts, meals, recognition and planning events. (scroll down to see the full document.)
The ASBA’s annual budget is $5.5 million.
When the province’s 61 school boards meet this weekend for the ASBA fall general meeting, the CTF is calling on them to demand a detailed account of how the association’s funds are spent.
“[Education] Minister [David] Eggen should not send another dollar to the ASBA until everyone is confident it won’t end up funding yet another staff Easter egg hunt,” said MacPherson.
Eggen said the ASBA is funded through school boards’ subscriptions, but said, ultimately, it boils down to taxpayer money.
“I will certainly speak to school boards to ensure they are providing a degree of transparency and direction to the Alberta School Boards Association to make sure that the monies that ultimately are public monies are being spent in the best way possible,” he said.
Later Thursday, the minister’s office said it had contacted the ASBA and President Helen Clease informed them “processes the group has since put in place that will put a higher degree of scrutiny on expenses incurred by members of the organization.”
“It’s very important that we spend money in the classroom to the… maximum possible. So when I see stories like this, I’m certainly disappointed,” Eggen added.
He said he would be looking into the issue.
“It seems very inappropriate. I would like to see and learn more about this based on what I just heard this morning.”
Thursday, the ASBA released a statement:
“ASBA is a member-based organization whose purpose is to support publicly elected school boards and their officials and to advocate for public education in Alberta. ASBA’s budgets are approved by school boards who are members of the Association.
“ASBA is accountable to its membership. We will welcome a review of expenditures by the Minister of Education if requested.”
On Monday, the group’s president said the ASBA reviews its finances several ways and recognizes it is accountable to school boards.
According to its Annual Report for 2015, the association made strides to cut costs, reducing its budget by $544,000, while still lowering membership fees by two per cent. More than half of its revenue comes from membership fees.
The board of directors also cancelled the association’s National School Boards Association membership to save $31,000 on membership fees and travel expenses. Staff did not receive salary increases and per diem rates for trustees were held at the $166 per day 2013-2014 levels.
WATCH: The Alberta School Boards Association is an advocacy group and is funded with public dollars through school boards. Vinesh Pratap takes a closer look at the expenses that include things like flights and hotel rooms.
On Monday, the CTF revealed emails that allegedly questioned the association’s use of funds for staff accommodations, travel and retreats.
The CTF said emails from Sarah Hoffman, the current health minister and former Edmonton Public School Board chair, and from current EPSB Chair Michael Janz ask the ASBA if money is being spent appropriately.
The group claimed the emails questioned the association for expensing hotel bills for people staying in the same city they live in, excessive flights between Edmonton and Calgary, a pricey rental space and other travel and out-of-town retreats.
In May, Janz resigned “on principle” as vice-president of the ASBA. He emphasized his commitment to fiscal restraint and explained those commitments didn’t “align with the current direction of the ASBA.”
“I saw expenses I would not sign and not approve. I saw practices that I did not agree with and I do not want to have to defend,” he said Thursday.
Janz said the Edmonton Public School Board pays approximately $200,000 per year in membership fees to the ASBA. He also said the board was very concerned about the ASBA budget and asked them to cut it by 10 per cent.
“Unfortunately that did not pass,” said Janz. “We have continued to express our concern and our opposition and we will continue to do so.”
The ASBA said it was surprised by Monday’s CTF news release. President Helen Clease said most of the questions brought up in Hoffman’s and Janz’s emails were already addressed internally during the spring budget process.
“Edmonton Public School Board unanimously last year voted that we did not have confidence in the budget that was proposed,” said Janz. “These are not new concerns for our board. We have noted them many times.
“As a school board, we want to be proud of every single dollar we are spending,” he stressed. "Can we be proud of the dollars we are spending at the ASBA?"
BELOW: Alberta School Boards Association expense document