CBE fee urged despite legal risk
Trustees asked to hike lunch supervision cost by 40%
Top officials at Calgary’s public school board are asking trustees to hike noon-hour supervision fees by 40 per cent, despite legal advice that says charging parents anything to take care of their children over lunch may be unlawful.
An April 12 memo from lawyers at McLeod Dixon warns there is a “significant risk” the Calgary Board of Education could be found not to have the legal authority to charge the proposed $280 fee. It’s now $200 per child per year.
But CBE chief superintendent Naomi Johnson tabled a report at a trustees meeting a week later that recommended the cash-strapped board proceed with a planned fee increase next year that would reap $4.1 million.
CBE officials did not respond to written questions Friday about the fee it levies on parents of an estimated 14,000 students, but the 13page opinion obtained by the Herald shows the CBE’s legal counsel Rod Peden explicitly warned the board’s levy could earn it the wrath of Education Minister Dave Hancock.
“Without any express authority in the School Act for the board to charge these fees,” reads the memo, “there is the real risk that the minister may, on review, take exception to the board doing so.”
Larry Leach, president of the fledgling Association for Responsive Trusteeship in Calgary Schools, said the memo raises serious questions about the CBE’s integrity and transparency.
“It’s confirmation of the public’s concern about the secrecy of this board,” Leach said.
“Instead of pretending this legal problem doesn’t exist, they need to be forthright with parents so we can find a way to move forward.”
The leaked memo comes amid a growing controversy about the $6.3 million in instructional supplies and materials fees the CBE also charges.
A Calgary lawyer says hundreds of parents have been refusing to pay charges of up to $132 per child for more than eight years in hopes of forcing a courtroom battle over the fee’s legality.
A Herald analysis of CBE reports suggests an estimated 5,000 parents are refusing to pay and that the uncollected bill for the past three years may be as much as $1.9 million.
Hancock said his department doesn’t have a police force to check up on boards, but he’s willing to field complaintsfromparents who feel they’re being forced to pay for the necessities of a public education.
“Every child is entitled to attend school and get an education without charge,” Hancock said.
“You need textbooks, so you can’t be forced to buy one or pay a rental fee that’s not returnable.”
He said the same applies for chemicals used in a science lab or wood used in a carpentry course.
“If you want to do something exotic, like build a black walnut coffee table for a Christmas gift, presumably you might be charged for the extra cost of materials,” Hancock said.
“That’s the sort of logic that should go into school fees.’
As for billing parents a noon-hour supervision fee, Hancock said it would only be appropriate in circumstances where it was possible for children to walk home for lunch.
The government’s proposed Education Act would still give boards the power to levy fees, but it would define what they can charge for in regulations that will be written after public consultation.
Jacquie Hansen, president of the Alberta School Board’s Association, said the discussion about fees is long overdue.
“Boards don’t want to charge fees, but do parents want their children unsupervised over the lunch hour?” Hansen said.
“We need to look at the costs boards face, what’s included in a public education, and how it’s all going to be funded.”
Trustees with the CBE have not approved the proposed hike in noonhour supervision fees.
At its next meeting, Tuesday, the board is expected to debate a planned 60 per cent hike in busing charges that would force families to pay up to $670 a year.
While the board provides fee waivers to low-income families, anti-poverty activists say the income cut-off of $26,397 for a family of four is far too low.
It’s confirmation of the public’s concern about the secrecy of this board Larry Leach, association for responsive trusteeship in caLgary schooLs