School districts across the Lower Mainland feel budget pinch

On April 27, the Burnaby school board voted to chop 42 full-time-equivalent positions as part of a $5.2-million cost-cutting exercise. In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, school board chair Diana Mumford explained that although the B.C. government increased funding by $3.38 million, district costs increased by more than double that amount because of provincially imposed expenditures.

According to Mumford, they include $2.56 million to pay for additional teachers’ compensation, $600,000 in teacher-salary increments, $1.26 million in a teachers’ pension increase, and $2.74 million to cover the cost of increasing staff for full-day kindergarten. “We’re up over $7 million already,” she said. “Then they throw in carbon offsets.”

On the same night that the Burnaby board was grappling with its financial challenges, the North Vancouver school board voted to close Fromme elementary, effective June 30. This came a week after the North Vancouver board voted to close Plymouth and Blueridge elementary schools in response to a financial shortfall of between $6 million and $7 million. Meanwhile, Surrey faces a $12-million deficit, according to board chair Laurae McNally.

Boards are required by the School Act to balance their budgets.

Whereas North Vancouver is experiencing declining enrollment, Surrey is going in the opposite direction. “Part of our problem is growth,” McNally told the Straight by phone. “We have to purchase portables out of our operating budget.”

She noted that in 2007, the Surrey school district spent $2 million to buy 20 portable classrooms. This year, she added, the district will have to purchase 20 more. McNally said that there are 16 portables on-site at Fraser Heights secondary. At T.E. Scott elementary, she stated, only kids in kindergarten and grades 1 and 2 are in the main school building. “Everybody else is in a portable,” she said. “That puts pressure on the core services in the building—the gym, the washrooms, the library.”

McNally maintained that since the 2005–06 budget, all provincial-government capital spending in the district has been on seismic upgrades. She emphasized that no new capital money has been allocated for new classroom space or new schools. “This past September, we grew by 1,101 students,” she said. “This September, we’re expecting to go up by 1,284.”

In a phone interview with the Straight, Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid said that $50 million is being spent on two new schools under construction in Surrey: Woodward Hill elementary and Adams Road elementary. She revealed that the government will make an announcement in the next few weeks regarding a capital investment in connection with full-day kindergarten. “That is going to provide some relief in Surrey,” MacDiarmid said. “We’re actually going to do a bit of expansion, not only for full-day kindergarten but to provide some extra classrooms, so that they will be able to eliminate some portables.”

MacDiarmid claimed that the provincial government has addressed the concerns of school boards about funding pressures related to teachers’ salary increases, full-day kindergarten, building maintenance, and the harmonized sales tax. The Ministry of Education budget rose from $5.03 billion in 2009–10 to $5.16 billion in 2010–11.

Meanwhile, the education minister claimed to the Straight that there are 13 schools in Vancouver that are “40 percent or more” empty, but her ministry didn’t provide a list by deadline. She said that in the past, when a school property was sold, the district was allowed to keep part of the proceeds in its capital budget. However, about a year-and-a-half ago, she noted, the B.C. government decided to stop the sale of school sites.

“We knew that enrollment was going to start to increase by about 2014, and we knew that we were going to be substantially increasing the number of students in our schools with our full-day kindergarten and our expanding of learning to four-year-olds and three-year-olds,” she said. “Once a property is gone, it’s gone.”

MacDiarmid added that the government is urging school boards “to find new administrative savings”, citing the Southeast Kootenay school district’s greater reliance on videoconferencing as an example. She called on school boards to pay close attention to travel and convention costs, and to look at sharing services between districts.

Burnaby’s Mumford, however, said that her board is already working with two different districts to share services. “We are being accused by the ministry of not doing that, but that’s not correct,” she claimed. “We are, and we do try to economize wherever we can.”

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