Thoughts about school fees.

I first posted this on Facebook with the intro comment:

Okay ... this will set a record for longest post! If you printed it out it would be about 4 pages. So, only people who really want to know my detailed thought process need read through. The rest of you - please skim at your leisure but remember - everything has context! I promised to get something out a.s.a.p. so I'm posting as is; but I reserve the right to edit later!!

I have two goals for this extended post.

1) I want to directly address the issue of school fees (further to Twitter threads with lots of discussion about this today).
2) I want to demonstrate the type of thinking that I believe needs to come to the Board of Trustees, so that we work effectively and make decisions based on principles and values. Board Effectiveness is a key platform issue for me.

There is a lot to know to fully understand issues connected to school fees. I think I know and understand a fair bit about this. And, I don’t know everything. So, I want to start by saying that I’m open to finding out what I’ve missed. Next, I want to lay out:

1) What I (think I) know, 
2) what I believe, and
3) the questions I’ll work through with other Trustees, once elected.

*PLEASE let me know (and point me to the evidence where possible) if you think I’m wrong about something on the list of "what I think I know". PLEASE ask any questions you have about what I believe, or about the questions I would like to work through with Trustee colleagues (once elected).

What I think I know:

  • As a society, we have agreed in principle to make publicly funded education available for EVERY child. 
  • In Alberta, funds flow from the province to the school jurisdictions (such as CBE) to provide publicly funded education. 
  • The provincial government determines what funds they will provide and what, if any restrictions there are on spending. 
  • The Alberta government provides the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) with the great majority of its revenues. 
  • The revenue comes in various ways and via certain formulae (such as an amount for each child, an amount for transportation for certain bus riders, etc.).
  • There are relatively few restrictions; although there are some (e.g., a cap on administrative spending). For the most parts, school jurisdictions have a good deal of discretion on how to spend. 
  • For the most part, school jurisdictions are expected to take the revenues and, considering ALL revenue and local needs, decide how best to spend it. Generally speaking, they are not required to account for spending within ‘pots’ from where the money comes in. So, in theory, you can spend $s from the per pupil grant on non-instructional costs. CBE was in process of moving AWAY from this when Bill 1 was introduced. 
  • Bill 1, introduced in March 2017, provided new funds designed to reduce fees that parents were paying, and it came with new rules. These rules create restrictions that school jurisdictions have not had to manage before. 
  • CBE is obligated to follow the rules. 
  • New rules mean some parents are relieved of transportation fees and some will be paying for transportation. 
  • With Bill 1, school jurisdictions can no longer charge fees for instructional supplies and materials for any student; nor can they charge transportation fees for certain students. They can charge transportation fees for some other students (attending other than their designated community school or special education program). They can also charge 3 other types of fees:
    • a. Non-curricular travel, e.g. to and from extracurricular event
    • b. Extracurricular fees, e.g. sporting or other extracurricular
    • c. Activity fees, e.g. admission fees to venues
  • Before Bill 1, the extra/non-curricular and activity fees were developed & decided mostly at the school level. The process by which parents had input into these was via school councils. This can continue but province will still need to approve fees even if school council already has.
  • Right now, government has said that “if it’s not on a fee schedule (approved at the beginning of the year by the province) you are not going to be able to charge it.” This requires a great deal of foresight and may not be practical in a number of instances. CBE will try to work with provincial government to see how best to work with their rules. 
  • Fee schedules are to be submitted to the province by September 15, 2017. 
  • Fee schedules will be posted once they are approved. 
  • Fees won’t be charged, and trips won’t be undertaken, until they have been approved by province. 
  • All of what we are thinking and doing now could change as things evolve at the provincial level.

Things I believe:

  • Overall, parents pay too many fees. 
  • Some parents face considerable financial stress because of school fees. Many families have no room for more stress in their lives. This hurts.
  • When some parents are required to pay for things and other parents are not, it detracts from equity in public education. 
  • Some parents appreciate the opportunities which these fees support (i.e., extracurricular activities and field trips) and want them to flourish.
  • As noted, some parents find the fees to be significant financial stressors. 
  • Some parents are in between. 
  • The Board of Trustees need to balance various views of what the public wants. 
  • In my opinion, education being publicly funded really ought to mean ‘fully funded’ (no extra fees to get to and from school or participate in the opportunities that schools provide). Otherwise, children in affluent communities get a different education than children in schools in less affluent communities. This is a somewhat idealistic view in light of how things work at the moment. It does however, reflect my values. 
  • CBE is a part of the much larger provincial system and a decision for CBE to eliminate fees on their own would have VERY significant implications. (There would be significant costs associated with this benefit) 
  • Fees can only be eliminated altogether if we either get more funds from the province or spend existing funds differently (this one could probably have gone in the column of “things I know).
  • Finding other costs to eliminate, so that CBE could eliminate school fees, is not likely to be easy. If it were easy, it would be done already. But with conversation based on reason, values and principles, it is possible that a fully functioning Board of Trustees, working together, could do so.
  • My beliefs are not particularly important while they remain those of an individual – far more important is the general feeling among Calgarians and their elected Trustees. 
  • There are fast solutions. There are cheap solutions. There are good solutions. We can only pick two. There are no fast, cheap and good solutions. (Not an original way of putting it but I don’t know who to cite). The Board of Trustees' job is to decide which two. My preference would be to find good and cheap solutions (won’t be fast because might need to make changes over time to account for everybody’s interests). However, my job as a Trustee would be to work with colleagues to find a consensus or a close to one as possible, not to impose a solution. 
  • It should be non-negotiable that when fees are to be levied, there is opportunity for there to be local input from those who will be expected to pay.

Examples of questions the new Board of Trustees should address:

  • What do we believe about our constituents’ thoughts about fees?
  • What do we know?
  • Are there gaps in what we know that can be filled, at reasonable cost?
  • Right now, decisions about extracurricular/travel costs get parent input from school councils. Is this the right level for input to be obtained? Are there alternatives? Pros/cons of each? Before Bill 1 there was a plan for transportation fees and service levels, based on recent public engagement. All those plans changed on short notice after Bill 1 was introduced. In light of Bill 1, what is the right plan for the next form of transportation engagement? Timing? (See also an earlier, lengthy post about alternative programs).
  • What do we believe about the level at which these decisions should be made e.g. system level - same fees, if any, for all schools, or divisionally, all schools of the same grades? school by school? 
  • What are the implications of those decisions? For example, if all schools have the same fees for field trips and extracurricular activities– how do we ensure fees are manageable for most families in least affluent communities. In other words, how do we ensure that public education does not unduly privilege some students over others. 
  • What do we know about restrictions (e.g. provincial regulations, as they evolve) that limit what we can or cannot do when setting fees policies? 
  • Is there a reasonable consensus within the Board of Trustees, reflecting a mandate from our public, to move forward with policy shifts?
  • Governance policy is used to guide and direct the Chief Superintendent to create and implement internal administrative regulations that match what the Trustees are expecting on behalf of the public. What vision and governance policies (if any) need to be amended or developed to accomplish what the public wants?
  • How will the Board of Trustees monitor the Chief Superintendent’s success in relation to any new policy implementation? Does the new policy have enough detail (within the governance model) to give the Chief Superintendent every opportunity to be successful? Vague aspirations in ‘operational expectations’ which would have excessive costs to implement aren’t helpful. Does new policy allow for clear data to be collected with limited/reasonable expenditure? The Chief Superintendent should be set up for success and should not be in a position where it is possible to report technical compliance without being reasonably consistent with the spirit of the policy. Then the Board can appropriately require administrative accountability. 


School fees can be really hard on families. 

School fees can be really hard on families. 

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