Alberta’s United Conservative Party generates a lot of noise. Other than the Trans Mountain Pipeline, however, not a lot of it seems to have much to do with the principal issues facing Alberta these days.
Education Minister David Eggen’s decision to slap a cap on the outrageous salaries paid to the province’s 74 school board superintendents makes an interesting counterpoint to the UCP Opposition’s eerie silence on the NDP Government’s abortion clinic “bubble zone” legislation passed by the Legislature on May 30.
Whereas the UCP had nothing at all to say about Bill 9, the Protecting Choice for Women Accessing Health Care Act – nada, zilch, not a word – the party’s leader was positively voluble on the topic of the supers’ salary cap. Thirteen words!
That’s all I could find, anyway, from Mr. Kenney or anyone else in the UCP. In this world of social media, however, it’s possible there’s another word or two somewhere, of course. Just the same, they were pretty quiet on this one for an opposition party.
“A commendable move by the NDP government to restrain superintendent pay & benefits,” Mr. Kenney Tweeted before moving on to accusing companies that weigh in against pipeline expansion of being members of “Team OPEC.” (Question: Does anyone who wasn’t around for the oil embargo 44 years ago even know what OPEC is? … It’s the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, for those of you who are wondering. And don’t forget the “The”.)
Even this much must’ve been painful. It’s the Stephen Harper/Jason Kenney style, after all, never to say anything positive about an NDP or Liberal governing party. Well, it’s nice, I guess, that Alberta politicians have found a new target in British Columbia Premier John Horgan and anyone who supports him, because the thing about attacking Quebec politicians whenever there was nothing better to talk about was sure getting old.
Mr. Kenney’s 13 kind words about Mr. Eggen’s salary cap may have been part of the UCP’s much-vaunted kinder, gentler strategy in the Legislature – which given their rhetoric around pipelines, goes against the Conservative grain. More likely, though, it’s a species of low-bridging – keeping your head down on controversial issues that have the potential to divide your own supporters.
That’s certainly the reason for the UCP’s unprecedented refusal to talk about or vote on Bill 9, which even other Conservative leaders like former Alberta Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk have condemned as a “foolhardy act of bravado or defiance” that “disgraced our democratic institution and allowed for a law to be passed without proper parliamentary scrutiny.” It also “disregarded each elected member’s sacred duty to discharge the will of the people,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
Meanwhile, the story of the absurdly generous pay and perks received by Alberta’s school board superintendents that has bubbled to the surface over the past couple of years is positively grotesque. Truth be told, though, it’s been in the making for decades, as generations of conservative governments rewarded their friends.
Therein lies the part of problem for Mr. Kenney.
Another part is that UCP leaders obviously can’t speak up for their friends atop many of the province’s school boards without appearing to be soft on fiscal restraint, supposedly the party’s métier. After all, they’re fiscally austere – except when they’re not.
And they don’t want to alienate Catholic school leaders in particular – who are a big part of this pay and perks problem – because of the UCP’s efforts to woo social conservatives and religious school boards through a not-so-covert effort to turn legislation protecting members of school gay-straight alliances into a wedge issue against the NDP.
So it could not have been a happy moment for the UCP when it came out that Edmonton Catholic Schools Superintendent Joan Carr was the highest paid superintendent in a province where all superintendents have been overpaid.
Ms. Carr got compensation of almost $427,000 last year, and was in line for another raise this year until Mr. Eggen stepped in. Despite leading a school board less than half the size by the number of schools or students, Ms. Carr was paid more than $85,500 above Edmonton Public Superintendent Darrel Robertson back in 2016.
Average superintendent pay province-wide rose 10 per cent over three years while teacher pay went nowhere. It noticeably outpaced compensation for the same work in British Columbia and Ontario.
Then there were the perks – $1,200 a year for a gym membership here, $10,000 a year toward kids’ university tuition there, $10,000 for “incidentals” at one board, $25,000 for an RRSP at another. Readers will get the picture. If this isn’t part of the old Tory spoils system, it’s very hard to explain.
It’s certainly impossible to use the old saw that you gotta pay top salaries to get top people when the salaries are this far out of line. Interestingly, after Mr. Eggen imposed the cap last week, Ms. Carr said she would stick around despite losing about 25 per cent of her compensation, amounting to as much as $102,000. Mind you, that didn’t stop the Calgary Public School Board from trotting out the gotta-pay argument last week.
So what did Mr. Eggen actually do? Not enough, arguably. Still, the symbolism is powerful in imposing a five-step pay grid and bringing compensation into line with executive pay in other public sector boards, agencies and commissions in Alberta. (Where the NDP took similar action back in 2016.)
Compensation at the province’s public, Catholic, francophone and charter school boards will now range from $60,000 for small charter schools to $275,000 at large metropolitan boards. “It is expected that the changes will reduce overall compensation for superintendents by an average of 10 per cent across Alberta,” the government’s news release said, a matter of a statistically insignificant $1.5 million that will be redirected back to classrooms.
“Clear limits for superintendent pay will help ensure public funds continue to be put where they can do the most good for Alberta’s students, while ensuring boards can continue to recruit top leaders,” Mr. Eggen noted.
But not even the NDP wants to mention the elephant in the classroom, the fact that after Ralph Klein’s Conservative government stripped school boards of their taxing power in the early 1990s, it’s been hard to understand why a superintendent is needed at all when the job could be done capably by a provincially appointed administrator.
Truth be told, the UCP has let itself get boxed on this issue. So don’t expect to hear much more from them about it.
As for how to run the federal government’s business, however, Mr. Kenney can be counted on to have plenty to say about that. After all, he still seems to covet Justin Trudeau’s job.