Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
February 6, 2006
Alarm bells ring over deficit
There is a grim irony in the fact that the Edmonton Catholic School Board's $10-million deficit came to light shortly before Alberta's bishops released the first in a series of pastoral letters calling for greater support of Catholic education.
Parents and taxpayers across the city are now angered about the deficit and especially about how it could be allowed to accumulate without the board and top administrators knowing. They are not easily mollified by Superintendent Dale Ripley's decision to hire an internal auditor to make sure such over-spending doesn't happen again. Administrators have prided themselves on "outside-the-box" thinking; taxpayers and parents are wondering why they first did not know what was going on inside the box.
Administrative competence is the core issue here. Was no one tracking the costs of school construction and renovation on a project-by-project basis? How can the district overspend its budget for teachers and other staff by $6 million without anyone knowing it?
Nor can staff at the district's central office be resting comfortably these days. The superintendent has pledged that schools will not be affected by the deficit - no teaching positions will be cut nor will school budgets be affected. Any staff cuts will be at central office.
Central office staff must be asking, first, "Do you mean that our work does not affect what takes place in the classroom? We take pride in our work precisely because it does have a positive effect on classrooms." They will also surely ask, "Why were the accounting staff given a 'second chance' when their failure to track the deficit was finally noticed while we won't even get a first chance? Why are we being laid off for someone else's mistake?"
Education Minister Gene Zwozdesky has been remarkably patient with the district when he would be within his rights to fire the superintendent and board and let Alberta Education run Edmonton Catholic until a new board was elected. What a blow to Catholic education it would be to have the province's second largest Catholic school district run, even temporarily, by provincial bureaucrats!
Even if Zwozdesky lets Edmonton Catholic run its own show, Catholic education has taken a hit. One major argument against Catholic schools has been that it would surely cost less to have one school system in Alberta rather than two. Now, the $10-million deficit has given those critics another bone to chew on.
We are further left aghast at school board chair Debbie Cavaliere taking 37 days to notify the rest of the board of the news of the deficit. Cavaliere says she wanted to make sure she got all the numbers correct before she let other board members know what was happening. That hardly constitutes sufficient reason for keeping the board totally in the dark.
Canadians are concerned about our federal government's democratic deficit and Albertans about the democratic deficit in this province. In contrast, Catholic school boards should be paragons of openness. In this case, the board chair fell short.
To date, trustee Janice Sarich is the only trustee who has expressed public opposition to the deficit and how it has been handled. Sarich has called for an external investigation of how the deficit arose. We have heard nothing from the other six trustees. Are they satisfied with what has taken place?
We're not sure, however, what Sarich's narrowly-focused investigation would accomplish. But enough concerns have arisen out of this incident to raise the issue of whether a much broader external investigation - with public input - of Edmonton Catholic Schools is warranted. Are its administrative procedures adequate and exemplary? Is the district living up to its mandate to provide schools where the Catholic faith permeates all classroom activities? Are the procedures of the board up to the highest democratic standards?
The Catholic school system is the largest and one of the most treasured institutions of our Catholic community. Concern over the latest revelations cannot be allowed to fester. It is time for a full, comprehensive look at an institution in which we place so much hope.
- Glen Argan
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