At the June 17, 2014 Board meeting I made a motion that our Junior and Senior High students should be strongly encouraged to attend the annual March for Life. This motion was accepted by the majority of trustees and was passed. Below is the reasoning behind why I believed our students should attend the March.
Teaching our Students the Language of the Gospel
At the 125th Anniversary Mass recently held on June 8th Archbishop Smith suggested that our students are immersed in a culture which speaks a different language to the Gospel. Our students hear the language of consumerism and self absorption every day through video games, media and the internet. The mission of our Catholic schools however is to teach our children a different language—the language of the Gospel of Jesus Christ which is a language of hope and of love. Participation in the March for Life underlines the dignity of the human person which is to be respected and cherished from conception to natural death. The language of this march is contrary to our consumer, throw-away society and teaches our students that all human life is worthy of our care.
Pope Francis in his 2012 encyclical The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium) speaks of this disposable culture in which “human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded” (p.41). He speaks of this disposable culture in the context of an economy of exclusion in which what makes headlines is not the elderly person who died of exposure but the stock market which lost 2 points. We need to give our students the language of the Gospel which would help them become agents of change in our world – to help change it so that no person is excluded from participation in society. That regardless of a person’s age, whether born or unborn, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio economic status, gender, health, etc., all people are to be included in the life of society.
The March for Life: a Joyful Celebration of Life
Archbishop Smith in his April 7, 2014 letter encouraging our participation in the March for life reminds us that “In accord with the directives given to the whole church by His Holiness, Pope Francis, in The Joy of the Gospel, our March must be joyful and celebratory of the wondrous gift of life, since all that we do as Christians must radiate joy”. Because of my participation in the Blueprints conference this year, I was unable to attend the March for Life however, I understand from those who were there, that it was indeed a joyful and peaceful event. I believe therefore that our students in participating in this march, will only be exposed to very positive messages.
The March for Life: A March for the Dignity of All Life
My insistence that we send at least some representation to this march each year can be summed up in the words of Pope Francis again in his encyclical The Joy of the Gospel:
“this defence of unborn life is closely linked to the defence of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defence of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be”.
By having our students participate in the March for Life they will learn that the protection of human life is to be seen comprehensively to include not only the unborn, the sick and dying but include as Bob McKeon states “our neighbours on the street experiencing hunger and homelessness”. Bob McKeon in the May 26 WCR, quotes Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago who states that this approach is a “seamless garment; a consistent life ethic of life – one which stands for the protection of the right to life and the promotion of the rights which enhance life from womb to tomb joining the humanity of the unborn infant and the humanity of the hungry”.
The March for Life in other words offers a teachable moment for our students to learn how much we as a Catholic district value all human life in all its expressions and that we value it so much that we are willing to stand up, march and speak to this value. I think this experience could have a very positive impact on our students and recommend that we send as many of them as possible to this event.
At the May 20, 2014 public board meeting we were requested to approve the budget for the district for the 2014-2015 school year. I was unable to approve the budget for a couple of reasons. On page 3 of the budget booklet it states: “Our stakeholder input was a vital part of our planning and we encouraged stakeholders to bring forth the issues that they identified as most important. Through the use of surveys and discussion groups, parents, students and employee groups were asked a series of questions relating to their views on relevant issues…of high priority were the issues of class size, faith formation, support for special needs and the need for prudent fiscal management”.
Nowhere in that list did our stakeholders declare that training our teachers for Inspiring Education was a priority for them. Inspiring Education is a provincial initiative which the province should fund. If teachers need to be re-trained to teach in the manner advocated by Inspiring Education, the province should provide money for that training. Our district in this budget is devoting $1 million dollars of our budget to this training which we call “Transform”. I asked the Minister of Education in a May 13 email if our district was expected to pay for our teachers’ training for Inspiring Education and he replied:
“…the first thing is we need to use the PD dollars already in the system to do appropriate training. It’s not just a matter of adding things but actually changing the way we do things today with the dollars we already have. Second there is a desire to add resources for appropriate teacher supports and training. I can’t say exactly how much or exactly what it would be for but my hope is that there will be some coming.”
In my view, adding $1 million to our PD budget for the purpose of training our teachers for Inspiring Education is more than what our Education Minister expects. Our stake holders have clearly stated that their priorities are class size, faith formation, support for special needs and prudent fiscal management.
I believe that we should be devoting that additional $1 million toward these identified priorities. A million dollars will go a long way to address our increasing large class sizes; to enhancing the faith formation of our students through increased funding for our school chaplains; for hiring additional supports for our special needs students. By directing this money to these priorities as identified by our stakeholders we will be also showing our prudent fiscal management.
On May 20th I asked my fellow trustees to join me in requesting our administration to devote our current PD dollars toward Transform as the Minister suggests. I asked my fellow trustees to make one amendment to the budget: put the $1 million dollars currently devoted to the Transform initiative towards the priorities identified by our parents, students, and employee groups. I asked that they trust that our Education Minister will provide money to train teachers in an approach to teaching and learning which is an initiative of our provincial government.
I suggested that we redirect the $1 million dollars to the following:
- We could use this money to reduce class sizes across all grades. One million dollars would allow us to hire 10 more teachers.
- We could use this money to give our special needs students more resources since parents of special needs students expressed in our latest satisfaction survey that they are only 77.9% satisfied with the learning experience of their children.
- We devote only $350,000 in this budget toward our new Canadian students—let us use some of the Transform budget for them.
- We devote only $285,000 toward our junior high chaplains – that works out to $10,000 for each of our 28 junior highs. We are devoting more to Transform than to our junior and senior high chaplains combined ($685,000).
- We have identified within our Accountability Pillar Report that our K-9 students’ learning achievement has been flagged as an issue. Some of this money could go toward addressing the causes for a decline in the rate of Acceptable and Excellent scores on our Provincial Achievement Tests.
I made these suggestions to my fellow trustees but they did not agree that the $1 million dollar Transform budget should be re-directed.
A major issue we are currently dealing with as a Board is the question of Gay Straight Alliances or GSAs in our schools. We have not yet made a decision in regards to this question. Our administration is preparing a report with recommendations for the Fall. What is my opinion of this issue? I am inclined to follow the recommendations of our Holy Father who states in his Encyclical The Joy of the Gospel:
“The Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems…I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and clinging to its own security…If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life.”
I would suggest that we need to reach out to our marginalized students to offer them the friendship of Jesus Christ. The Holy Father suggests that “mercy is the greatest of virtues, since all the others revolve around it”. In short then, whatever we as a Board decide in regards to GSAs in our schools, it is my hope that we will act with mercy and in a spirit of friendship and inclusion.
As I entered into the school closure process I learned that small schools in small plants such as St. Vincent and St. Timothy which have between 175 and 200 students, are able to manage fine financially. Small schools in large plants however, really struggle. The schools our Board was looking at closing had upwards of 188 students in schools designed for 650. So my hope in this school closure process was to see if we could partner with private developers who could take over the unused space. I did speak to 2 developers and they both said that it was quite feasible to put a seniors’ assisted living complex in the space unused by students. By “condo-izing” and selling the unused space to a developer, the district would be free of all its maintenance, utility, and janitorial responsibilities associated with the unused wing. In this way, small schools could remain open within our communities and the community would gain a much needed amenity. Seniors would be able to age in the community they built up and free up their homes for young families. There would also be the opportunity for cross generational exchange between the students and the seniors which I believe opens up all sorts of wonderful opportunities for students and seniors alike!
So on May 20th our Board voted to save St. Gabriel school which is in conversation with a developer to do just this kind of partnership. It has never been done before and so we are literally breaking new ground. If this model can be successful, I believe that it could be advantageous to our whole district including Ward 71 when schools begin to struggle with enrolment. I must say though that at this time, all of our Catholic schools in Ward 71 are doing very well in regards to enrolment. At last count we were at over 85% capacity in all the schools in the North West corner of the city.
So our Board voted to keep St. Gabriel open and amalgamate the 3 remaining schools into a new 750 student school on the St. Brendan site. It was partially what I had hoped for but not all. What I am learning though is that there is always some give and take when working on a Board. I believe we did a good job as a Board to try to represent as many diverse views, needs and communities in the way we voted on this issue.
To all those who helped me get elected by donating to my campaign, phoning, door knocking, and especially voting, many thanks for your support. It was a lot of work but please know that I will be continuing to work hard to represent the voice of the constituents of Ward 71 at the Board level. To those of you who did not vote for me, please know that I have heard your concerns and as the new trustee for Ward 71 will work with you to address these concerns. I believe in working together to find win-win solutions. In working together we may not get exactly what we both wanted but we will hopefully move forward together. This has been my experience working in my community — I didn’t get all or exactly what I wanted for many projects but I got some things. I hope that with the help of the Spirit we can work together to move our Catholic school district forward to provide excellence in education in a context that teaches our children the inherent dignity of all humanity and the great love that Jesus has for all of us.
Below you will find a comparison of remuneration of trustees from Edmonton Catholic School District (ECSD), Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) and Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) as of August, 2012 from the Audited Financial Statements posted online at http://education.alberta.ca/admin/funding/audited.aspx. You will notice that ECSD trustees receive a much higher salary than EPSB and CCSD despite that fact that they govern fewer schools and students. Here are the facts:
Average Trustee Salary: $65,833 (does not include expenses)
Average Trustee Salary: $44,255 (does not include expenses)
ECSD Trustees made on average $21,578 more than EPSB Trustees in 2012 or 49% more
In 2012 ECSD trustees got paid 49% more than EPSB trustees for looking after 44% fewer schools (88 for ECSD, 199 for EPSB) with 43% fewer students.
Average Trustee Salary: $38,670 (does not include expenses)
ECSD Trustees received $27,163 more per year than Calgary Catholic School trustees or 70% more
CCSD trustees serve 49,000 students in 105 schools. So they make 70% less than ECSD and serve 30% more students and 16% more schools than ECSD.
I am dismayed at seeing these numbers because while ECSD trustees make these high salaries, I have met two families in the last 2 weeks who have transferred their special needs children from ECSD to EPSB because they were offered more supports in the EPSB. I also met a special needs teacher while door knocking who said that indeed, there have been cut backs in supports for special needs children. As a Catholic school district that claims to believe that each child is a precious gift and sacred responsibility, I ask where is the ECSD’s responsibility to support the most vulnerable children in our system?
Where are the district’s priorities if it is willing to pay trustees, principals and vice-principals to attend a 3 day “Leadership Academy” at Jasper Park Lodge but cuts back on supports to special needs children? I believe that it is time for a change on our Board–It is time for fresh eyes, fresh hearts and fresh minds to take a new look at our district’s priorities in light of our faith and the values of the Gospel.
Before I crunch some ECSD numbers I would like to introduce you to my financial side. When I worked as the head of the Program and Retreat Department at Providence Renewal Centre, I increased our revenues 33.6% and decreased our expenses by 10% over my 5 years there.
When I became a member of the Woodcroft Community League in 2005 we were near bankruptcy. In 2006 when I began my 4 year term as President of the league, I turned our finances around to the point where we were able to build a $600,000 playground. I learned from our Treasurer that we were never going to be able to afford a new playground if we continued to use our casino money to heat our hall and maintain it. I therefore pursued the idea of getting a partner to share our hall, bringing in rental income which would offset the cost of keeping our hall open. We ended up partnering with 3 groups: the Woodcroft Playschool Association, Inland Cement (they use our roof as a station for their air quality testing instruments), and the Alberta St. George of England Society (ASGOES). ASGOES has since left our hall to partner with the Edmonton Scottish Society. Through my connections with Edmonton’s Art’s Community I recommended our league partner with the Edmonton Musical Theatre which I had learned, were needing a new home. They accepted our invitation. Having these 3 groups in our hall has not hindered our community’s use of it. Because the community benefits from having these groups in our hall – preschool children from the neighbourhood attend the Woodcroft Playschool and older children attend the Edmonton Musical Theatre – it is a win – win for all groups.
So all told, these groups bring in $3,700 per month in revenue which more than pays for the utilities and the maintenance of our hall. We were then able to take our casino money and invest it until such time as we needed it for matching grants. It took 4 years to save enough money for our playground but it was finally built in the summer of 2012.
Many people have asked me how I will deal with fiscal challenges our district is facing. I believe in the concept of “Zero Based Budgeting”. This means that we begin our budgeting from scratch looking at our top priorities. This form of budgeting is the opposite of what is used currently which is to take each existing category and increase it with the cost of living.
So I think we can all agree that our top priority is the classroom – this is our raison d’etre as a school district. With this form of budgeting we would look at all the money we need to provide an optimal learning environment for students. This would include for example the teacher’s salary, heat, electricity, school supplies, and janitorial services. I would also include that the classrooms would be budgeted based on the Alberta Education recommended size of classroom for each grade level. When we have designated all the required money for the classroom, we go to our next priority and so on. Using this form of budgeting, it may be that inservices and pizza lunches might not get any funding this year but we will know that our $400 million is at least going to what we have designated our top priorities.