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Commentary: Public money feeds into private surplus

April 10, 2018 James Wilt, Progress Alberta, Special to the ATA News

Webber Academy receives $5 million per year in public money while sitting on $40 million surplus

Part of a Progress Alberta campaign calling on the government to defund elite private schools, this commentary is adapted from an article that appears on Progress Alberta’s website at

Private schools are often criticised for being exclusive enclaves that enable students of well-heeled parents to access powerful networks. Few exemplify that as much as Calgary’s Webber Academy, which charges $18,000 per year for tuition as well as a $6,000 enrolment deposit — and received more than $5 million in public funding in 2016–17.

Webber Academy was founded in 1997 by Neil Webber, a four-term Progressive Conservative MLA who served under both Peter Lougheed and Don Getty.

In a recent interview, the 81-year-old school president shared his rationale for founding Webber Academy.
“I thought, wouldn’t it be nice some day to have a school where you have generally the top 25 per cent of the population for aptitude and the desire to learn,” Webber said.

Since opening, the school moved to a 47-acre campus in the city’s southwest, constructing a sizable school with two gymnasiums, a high-school science centre with five laboratory classrooms, a 500-seat performing arts centre and “cross country trails through the aspens.”

The 975-student school has always maintained strong political connections.

Neil Webber’s son Len worked as vice-president of business administration at Webber Academy between 1997 and 2004 before getting elected as a Progressive Conservative MLA for a decade and later as a Conservative MP. Former board member Jim Silye was elected as a Reform Party MP in 1993. Another former director, Roy Wilson, was a member of the Social Credit caucus until 1975 — when he was defeated by
Neil Webber. Veteran board member Milt Pahl was a PC MLA in the 1980s.

And of course, there’s Danielle Smith — former leader of the Wildrose Party and briefly lived PC MLA — who served on the Webber board between 2004 and 2009.

Webber Academy is a top school in Alberta, if you give the pro-private Fraser Institute’s annual school rankings any weight. However, as multiple studies have indicated, improved learning outcomes at private schools are almost entirely based on the socio-economic backgrounds of students.

“Students who attended private high schools were more likely to have socio-economic characteristics positively associated with academic success and to have school peers with university-educated parents,” concluded a 2015 report from Statistics Canada.

According to a separate 2013 report by the Fraser Institute, the average income of parents who send their children to Webber Academy is $190,200 for elementary school and $216,700 for high school. While that aforementioned $6,000 enrolment bond is refundable upon graduation or withdrawal, parents are encouraged to donate that amount to the school since it is a non-interest bearing loan. As coyly noted in Webber’s latest info package: “The net present value of the bond could ensure that a donation now may be advantageous to you.”

In a 2012 Globe and Mail feature, Debby Carreau, a human relations executive and parent of two children attending Webber Academy, explained: “[Some parents] say, ‘my six-grand today will only be worth three-grand in 14 years, but if I donate it today, I’m going to have a $6,000 deduction’” and that “it helps the school, too.”

While such depreciation over 14 years might be a bit overstated, it’s clear that already affluent parents who can afford a “donation” of $6,000 stand to benefit the most by such an arrangement.

Webber Academy has also benefitted from $30.8 million in public funding for operating costs between 2010 and 2017. The public subsidy added to the high tuition and enrolment bonds have allowed the school to build up some impressive assets.

According to filings with the Canada Revenue Agency, the school’s land and buildings are worth about $26 million (the province does not fund capital costs for private schools). The performing arts centre, opened in 2012, cost $14 million to build. For reference, a new public school costs about $4.2 million. Webber holds another $3.6 million in capital assets.

Over the last several years, Webber has also saved up significant amounts of money in cash, bank accounts and short-term investments. In 2005, Webber Academy had $1.9 million stored away. By 2012, that had risen to $16 million. By 2015 the amount had almost doubled to $29.5 million, and in 2017 it spiked to $40.7 million.

But the money isn’t necessarily being saved up
because the school is being frugal with expenses.

In 2016, Webber Academy spent $255,594 on advertising and promotion, $446,887 on travel and vehicle expenses, $96,365 on office supplies and expenses, $754,370 on occupancy costs and $241,378 on professional and consulting fees. For the past two years, one person received between $250,000 and $299,999 in compensation — and in 2015, another received more than $350,000 in compensation.

This for a school that has fewer than 1,000 students.
Progress Alberta executive director Duncan Kinney says it is time for this stop.

“It is unfair to publicly subsidize exclusive and elite private schools charging $18,000 a year tuition while working-class families have to fundraise just to get the basic necessities of education in their regular public schools,” Kinney said.

“Elite private schools like Webber need to get off the gravy train of public subsidies.” ❚

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