Patti Bacchus says budget puts pressure on Vancouver school board

Vancouver school board chair Patti Bacchus is upset about the impending cuts to school-infrastructure funds, which she noted are contrary to the provincial government’s pledge to continue investing in education despite tough economic times.

“It seems to be going in the wrong direction,” Bacchus told the Straight, referring to the updated budget rolled out by the provincial government on September 1.

She cited what the government’s three-year fiscal plan allocates for infrastructure in K-12 schools across the province. The capital budget, which is $508 million for the current school year, will drop to $467 million in 2010–11. There will be another reduction in 2011–12, with infrastructure spending capped at $445 million.

These cuts are in addition to the $110 million in grants slashed by the province for school-building maintenance and upgrades for the 2009–10 school year. On August 27, the Vancouver school board received word from the Ministry of Education that it would lose $10.6 million in funding for school repairs.

Finance Minister Colin Hansen announced in his budget speech that the province will provide $151 million in funding for a new all-day kindergarten program for five-year-olds that will begin in September 2010. Grants of $44 million will be made available in 2010–11, followed by $107 million in 2011–12.

However, Bacchus isn’t sure whether the money will be sufficient to fully support the program. “It doesn’t appear to provide for the cost of the facilities, modifications, and supplying the classrooms,” she said. “It looks like it might just cover the salaries of teachers and benefits, and nothing to support districts.”

School districts are also facing other challenges. For one, boards have to shell out more money in compliance with collective bargaining agreements that provide increases in salaries and benefits for employees, according to Bacchus. She also noted that budgets will be strained by the 12-percent harmonized sales tax set to take effect on July 1, 2010. “School districts are not going to be HST–exempt,” she said. “That’s a big concern because if we don’t get that cleared up and get appropriate funding to cover the increased costs of the HST, we’re going to be in trouble.”

School boards also need to deal with the H1N1 flu threat. This involves a range of measures from increasing supplies of things like soap and paper towels to stepping up the cleaning of buildings. “The costs could be significant,” Bacchus said. “They could be well over $1 million in Vancouver—and again I don’t see any indication that we’re going to get any support for that. So we’re under great pressure.”