Public school board backtracks on plan to raise bus fees

One day after warning the parents of 27,000 students that charter school bus fees would likely rise next September, the Calgary Board of Education has done an about face and now says transportation fees will remain flat.

Spokesman Richard Peter said a new initiative, which the CBE decided on Wednesday morning, will look to find reductions and efficiencies in the busing budget to prevent any jump in the current fee of $295.

“Hopefully that enables parents to take some comfort at a time when budgets are tough, from the fact that they don’t have to look forward to significant increases for transportation next year,” Peter said.

It was a U-turn made less than 24 hours after the CBE said parents could expect bus fee increases.

The goal of the school board is to make sure no money from the classroom is redirected into the transportation budget to fill the shortfall, but said it can’t say definitively that won’t happen.

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The provincial budget axed a fuel contingency grant to school boards, which had tallied $2.3 million for the CBE. There is a transportation reserve fund, but the school board has said it won’t cover all the shortfall.

The reversal on fees comes as a relief to school board trustee Sheila Taylor, who has been urging cuts to bus fees.

But she said a hard look needs to be taken at the school board’s administration, with the aim of trimming costs, including cutbacks to the head office.

Education Minister Jeff Johnson has indicated in recent provincial budget documents he wants 10 per cent of the administration cap cut from each school board.

But CBE chief superintendent Naomi Johnson said earlier this week the school board administration is already lean, and much of the $4.6-million cut will likely be clawed back from classrooms.

The minister’s office on Wednesday reiterated a desire for school boards to chop administration spending, and said the provincial education department is being shaved by 15 per cent.

A spokesman for the minister said it’s not enough for school boards to run lean, and they may need to eliminate programs within administration to make sure money doesn’t get cut from schools.

“They’re ultimately accountable to their electorate,” Kim Capstick said. “In the budget, we’re very open and transparent about our expectations of boards. Then boards need to be able to show to people who elect them that they are able to make those kinds of decisions, too.”

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The CBE has said its administration costs are roughly 3.4 per cent of its total operational budget, but has not provided a detailed breakdown of what administration includes and what it does not.

Taylor said she doesn’t know either, and “you hear that number stated, but I’ve never seen the detail.”

“Parents have really been left in the dark because of budgets that lacked detail, especially in the administrative area,” Taylor said.

“We have not even seen what costs make up that section of the budget. We really need to know all of the details of our administrative costs.”

The CBE says it has one of the “most efficient administrative system” in the province, as a proportion of its $1.2 billion operational budget.

The CBE’s administration ratio is lower than the Calgary Catholic School District and Edmonton public school board.

It’s not as good as the Edmonton Catholic school board, which spends just 2.7 per cent on its administration.

And other school districts report better ratios than the CBE and Calgary Catholic, including Rocky View, Foothills, Red Deer, Grande Prairie and Medicine Hat.

On Wednesday, CBE spokesman Peter couldn’t say whether the school board would be able to cut $4.6 million from the system administration budget, but said there was a lot “heavy lifting” to do between now and when the budget assumptions report comes out next month.

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“We are looking at administration, and all aspects of everything we do to balance this budget,” he said.

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