Why I Do Not Go to the Annual Jasper Park Lodge Retreat and Other Issues of Fiscal Responsibility
This week, our superintendent, senior administration, principals and trustees are attending an annual retreat at the Jasper Park Lodge. There are 3 trustees from our board who choose annually not to attend this retreat. I cannot speak for my fellow trustees, but the reason I have chosen to skip this meeting is first of all because I believe that this retreat should be held in a Catholic retreat centre closer to home (Providence Renewal Centre comes to mind) which would cost our district much less money for both travel and accommodation and would provide the ambiance of a true retreat. By holding our retreat at a Catholic retreat centre, we would also be supporting a valued Catholic institution rather than a commercial one such as the Jasper Park Lodge.
I am also concerned about the optics of holding retreats at Jasper Park Lodge (JPL). I know from speaking with previous trustees on the board that this fall retreat at the JPL has always been controversial for the district. I have never stayed at the JPL due to my inability to afford it but I have wandered through it while on camping trips and I see why it has a reputation for being a posh hotel. I had a conversation last year with a parent who happened to be at the JPL when our district was holding its annual retreat and she said she was quite surprised that our district was holding their event at such a posh location. So the optics just are not good.
To be fair, the district does get a “good deal” as I am told, because October is low season for the JPL. The average cost for the 4 trustees to attend the retreat at JPL last October was $860 each. There are 88 schools so 88 principals attending which comes to $75,680. Add to that 1 superintendent, 4 trustees and a number of senior administrators (not sure exactly how many but I would guess 10) which adds up to $12,900. All told, the cost of the retreat at JPL would be around $88,580. I personally have a hard time spending this amount of money for a JPL retreat when we have other priorities in our district including giving more support to special needs students as well as their teachers. The issue of adequate supports for inclusion was one of 4 issues flagged by the C2 Committee as being of very high concern for teachers. Parents of special needs children have also flagged this as a concern. In 2010/2011 81.7% were satisfied with inclusive programming and in 2011/2012 81.5% were satisfied. But in 2013/2014 this number dropped to 77.9% (I was unable to find the % for 2012/2013). This is a 3.8% drop over 4 years showing that this is becoming a concern for parents. I have also heard directly from parents and teachers that they are very frustrated with the lack of supports for special needs children. In fact, I spoke to 3 families during the election last year who had moved their special needs children over to the public system because EPSB offers more supports. But I digress…
I know from speaking to the chair of the EPSB that they do not hold large retreats such as we do with trustees, senior staff, superintendent and principals. Instead, their principals meet together locally in their own facilities for their corporate meetings; the Board and administration and some senior staff will meet either locally or at Pigeon Lake in different groupings but none of them exceeding 22 people. Paula Simons wrote an article about how the EPSB used to hold their board retreat in Jasper or Pigeon Lake but this year they chose to stay closer to home in an effort to be more fiscally responsible. (go to http://www.edmontonjournal.com/Simons+Dentyne+Cheezies+Edmonton+Public+Schools+boring+expense+reports+actually+pretty+exciting/10253668/story.html.)
So I don’t think I am far off the mark to suggest that if we feel it is necessary to get everyone together for one large retreat, that we do it locally, at a less expensive location and even at a Catholic facility which would be more in keeping with our mission as Catholic schools.
In regards to my own expenses go to https://www.ecsd.net/BoardofTrustees/Reports-and-Resources/remuneration%20_expenses/Pages/Trustee-Remuneration-and-Expenses-Info.aspx for what I have charged to taxpayers since becoming a trustee in October 2013. Please note that the items listed in my expenses include the expenses made by the previous Ward 71 trustee. The public needs to know that I attended a number of conferences in the 2013 – 2014 school year which I will not be attending this year due to the fact that 2013 was the first year I was elected as a trustee. Because I was a new trustee, I attended the Alberta School Board Association (ASBA) New Trustee conference and the the ASBA Spring Legal conference. As well, though I attended the ASBA Spring General Meeting last year, I did not find it very informative so this year I will only be attending the Fall ASBA conference in November. You will also note that I did not attend the Jasper Park Lodge retreat last year as well as this year. So you will see a significance difference in my expenses in the 2014-2015 school year as compared to the 2013-2014 year.
Though I will be attending fewer conferences this year, I still believe that it is important to go to conferences/retreats — especially conferences organized by ASBA and ACSTA (Alberta Catholic School Trustees Association) of which we as a board of trustees are card carrying members. As a trustee I find the ASBA and ACSTA provide wonderful opportunities for professional development and for the sharing of ideas between trustees from both public and Catholic districts across Alberta.
In short, I have no issue with having retreats, meetings, and conferences. I just believe that there are ways to do this in fiscally responsible ways and ways which put our students first–especially our most vulnerable. I believe that this approach is in keeping with our mission as Catholic schools.