Public education in jeopardy in Vancouver

Some say that potential budget cuts to Vancouver’s public schools will stretch the system to a breaking point.

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      (Editor's note: After this article was sent to the printer on April 28, the Vancouver school board decided to delay voting on its 2010–11 budget until June.)

      Parents and children bond in lots of different ways. Often, doing things they haven’t tried before makes them proud of each other. This was the case on April 23 for Kris Jang and her daughter Sydney.

      It was their first time participating in a protest together. Standing on the back lawn of the Vancouver school board’s main office on West Broadway, mother and daughter were part of a group of at least 200 people, mostly secondary students. The protesters had assembled to confront the possibility that the district will implement its most drastic reduction of services in recent years.

      Their demand was clear: for the province to fully fund the cost of public education.

      “I’m very proud to be here with my daughter protesting budget cuts,” a beaming Jang told the Georgia Straight.

      Her daughter is in Grade 11 at Ideal Mini School, a small alternative school within the district system. Located on its own campus on West 59th Avenue, Ideal offers a complete academic program for grades 8 to 12, with an emphasis on the arts and social responsibility, and the environment in particular.

      “We’re probably one of the greenest schools in Vancouver,” Jang said about her daughter’s school. “We recycle everything. We have a composting program. We grow organic herbs and sometimes vegetables to use in the food that students prepare for lunches.”

      With a funding shortfall of $16.32 million projected for the 2010–11 school year, district staff recommended in an April 27 report to the school board the elimination of the equivalent of 69.1 full-time teaching positions. This move would be felt across the system, and mini schools are no exception.

      Another 30.5 teaching support staff positions are potentially on the chopping block. And that’s not the end of the list. Some 14.79 jobs in school administration; 18.3 in continuing, adult, and summer education; 10.3 in district administration; and 18.7 in facilities maintenance could be slashed.

      All in all, staff have recommended slashing 161.7 positions across the district. The board will vote on the final budget this evening (April 29). If it doesn’t balance the books, the provincial government has the legal authority to fire school trustees, who are elected officials.

      In a phone interview the Straight asked Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid point-blank if she would dismiss boards that don’t balance their budgets. “You know, trustees are aware that the legislation is in place, that balanced budgets need to be submitted to us,” she replied. “They have an excellent track record of doing that. I believe that they will provide us with balanced budgets.”

      In a recent open letter to parents and staff, superintendent of schools Steve Cardwell described the financial tempest. “We are in the midst of a perfect storm as this shortfall represents the culmination of declining enrolment, loss of Ministry of Education grants, and escalating operating costs,” Cardwell stated.

      In the April 27 report, staff pointed out that the proposed cuts would “shake the very core of the system”. According to the report, the reductions would “compound and compromise the ability for our system to maintain and continue the same level of service provided in the past”. They would “undoubtedly take a toll on an already overworked system”, it said.

      To put these cuts in perspective, the Vancouver school board has cut a total of 276.8 full-time positions since the 2002–03 school year.

      The board must submit a preliminary budget for the next school year by June 30 this year.

      The Coalition of Progressive Electors has three trustees on the board, and they have vowed not to vote for a budget that will drastically reduce services for students.

      “It’s not a question of the dollar level,” COPE trustee Jane Bouey told the Straight by phone. “It would be a question of what it looks like at the school level, what the impact is on students.”

      Out of the more than 69 teaching positions recommended for elimination, 21.2 are held by non-enrolling teachers. These include English-as-a-second-language teachers who work with children of immigrant families, and secondary-school counsellors who deal with students in distress.

      Teacher librarians are also included in the 43 positions that may be cut. It is for this reason that Carrie Bercic and her daughter Sarah attended the rally. Bercic is the chair of the parent advisory council at Eric Hamber secondary school, where Sarah is in Grade 8.

      “I’m here to support public education, but specifically we’re here to give our libraries a voice,” Bercic told the Straight. “Everything is in jeopardy for those positions.”

      Ashton Garay, a Grade 11 student at Vancouver Technical secondary school, addressed his fellow students at the rally. The articulate Tsimshian First Nations youth expressed concern about what could happen to the Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement signed by the school board, the province, and aboriginal groups last year.

      “Many aboriginal families have financial challenges and rely on the school to provide academic support and an engaging learning and cultural experience,” Garay said. “When there are less resources and time, support teachers, and administrators, who will provide the extra tutoring, guidance, leadership, and mentoring for the aboriginal youth?”

      The proposed cuts are extensive. They would reduce teacher psychologists by one. Also, the equivalent of one full-time speech and language pathologists would be trimmed. “This will reduce the overall assessment and therapy time provided to students,” the April 27 report stated.

      With the proposed cuts, students who are into music may have to ask their parents if they can afford private lessons outside of school. There are 19 schools with a strings program, while 32 elementary schools have a band program. All 8.7 positions in the Vancouver school system’s band and strings program may be eliminated.

      According to Vision Vancouver school trustee Sharon Gregson, many students who feel they don’t fit in at school choose not to drop out because of this music program. “I think it’s been incredibly poorly handled by the province, and it’s absolutely amazing that such high-level politicians would have such a gaffe,” Gregson told the Straight, referring to how the provincial government hasn’t listened to calls to put more money into the district.

      Not only will there be fewer teachers and support staff, there will be fewer supplies and other related services as well.

      Staff have proposed to reduce by $400,000 the $6 million allotted to schools as their flexible budget to purchase supplies and services. As well, the district’s purchasing department may take a $65,000 hit to its kitty for repair of appliances, fax machines, musical instruments, and physical- education equipment.

      The list goes on. The budget to transport students with special needs may be lowered by $468,134. Heating temperatures and hours may be cut to save $120,000. Interior painting may be cancelled for 2010–11. That would lessen the projected $18.1-million shortfall by $1.1 million.

      On April 26, as a money-saving measure, the board voted to reduce the length of the school year by 10 days. This spring, school trustees may have to consider closing down schools in the near future.

      Ken Denike, a Non-Partisan Association school trustee, is anticipating that the district may be able to recover up to $4 million of the overall projected shortfall of $18.1 million. He said $4 million was the difference between the $452 million in operating grants that the Vancouver school district expected to receive from the province and the
      $447 million actually allocated by the provincial government.

      “The provincial government gave us less for our base budget,” Denike told the Straight by phone. He hopes that the recovery of some, if not all, of this $4.3 million will be part of the recommendations that will be submitted by B.C. comptroller general Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland to the province by the end of the month. Earlier this month, Wenezenki-Yolland was named by the education minister as special adviser to the Vancouver school board.

      In addition to the $4 million, the province didn’t fund nearly $13 million in other costs. These include increases in employee salaries and benefits.

      As a parent, Annie Ehman has seen how school services have been whittled down over the years. When her daughter was a student at Laura Secord elementary school during the 1990s, the school had a full-time librarian who worked with teachers to enhance the educational experience of students. Then one year, she recalled in a phone interview, the position was eliminated.

      Ehman, president of the B.C. Society for Public Education, compared the district’s situation to an elastic band that has been stretched to the breaking point. “Now the cuts are definitely coming directly to classrooms,” Ehman told the Straight.

      Vancouver resident Richard Fahlman isn’t a parent, but he and a friend hoisted a banner at the April 23 rally just the same. “I’m here because I think it’s extremely shortsighted to misjudge your priorities, and be concerned about things like building an expensive stadium roof at the same time you’re chopping education funds,” Fahlman told the Straight, referring to the $458-million cost of replacing the roof of B.C. Place Stadium. “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

      The media advisory sent out by organizers of the protest noted that many people are calling on the nine Vancouver school trustees to defy the province and pass a cut-free budget on April 29. According to Denike, school boards must approve a balanced budget or they’ll be fired. He pointed out that in 1985, the Social Credit government threw out the Vancouver school board when trustees refused to go along with the province’s funding formula.

      The Straight asked first-term trustee and school board chair Patti Bacchus if the present board would dare to defy the government. According to the long-time advocate for public education, the decision depends entirely on individual trustees.

      “At this point, I know our trustees are feeling pretty sick about what it means if we comply with the requirements under the School Act,” Bacchus said in a phone interview. “It’s to file a balanced budget, which is going to mean pretty horrendous reductions.”

      According to her, trustees are working with staff to free up some money from the system to reduce the shortfall. One option is to dip into the local capital reserve and take around $2 million out of it. Staff have estimated that there’s a total of $2.7 million in the reserve, which is a contingency fund normally set aside for unexpected expenses.

      “We’re a lot more fearful about what’s going to be happening at the schools,” Bacchus said. “This job brings us no joy right now. It’s not a job I’m afraid to lose. I’m much more concerned about a child who had a liver transplant and can’t attend school and depends on the one hour a week he sees his home learner teacher. It’s his only connection to a school. Those are far more of a concern to me than losing this job.”




      Apr 29, 2010 at 7:13am

      The cuts to education, which by the way Gordo said he wouldn't do' are all part of the Ministry of Education to privatize our education system as they LIbERalS are doing with all of our Public Institutions. The list includes BC Rail (oh, we already sold that) BC Ferries (oh, right, we sold that to) BC Hydro (oh they're slowly selling that off) BC gas (Oh they sold that under the Social Credit regime) BC Hydro Rail (Oh they sold that under the Social Credit regime) BC Medical Plan (Oh they appointed a Private Health Clinic owner as head of the Fraser Health Authority, that sale is on the radar) Hmmm what have I forgot? Oh yes our public education system. Reduced funding for public education but no cuts to private education. See where they're going with this!


      Apr 29, 2010 at 10:42am

      Any chance of getting an unbiased story from ANY media outlet? I have questions which no journalist seems to want to touch.

      Why does the teachers union expect tax dollars to directly fund their pensions and health care premiums? Why isn't that coming out of their union dues?

      Why are the teachers giving themselves yet another raise, and have the next one lined up as well?

      What are the enrollments rates for Sept, considering the last baby boom is well over and done with and we're in a natural demographic lull? Some areas have seen a 25% drop in enrollment over the last decade.

      How many schools are running well below capacity?

      Why does the teacher's union think their industry is/should be constant steady growth when historically it never has been?

      Why is the teachers union a sacred cow that no one will admit is passing some nasty gas?

      Is this really about the kids?

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      Apr 29, 2010 at 11:15am

      While i'm sure some of sophia's questions have validity i'd be willing to bet they're a comparative drop in the bucket. Do unions really have the money to fund pensions and uh health care premiums? And just where would she like our tax dollars to go anyway? Perhaps she thinks they were better spent on the Olympics? Which were touted, if i recall, as a scheme to bring us money?
      Billions of dollars flying to - to where exactly...


      Apr 29, 2010 at 11:28am

      The teachers negotiate their pensions. If they didn't have them in place, they would be paid more, so they could invest on their own. In the present model, all the public sector unions put their money into the pension fund and it invested by the government, with a little advice from the unions. Sometimes in the past the money was invested in major projects in BC, like some dams, and very little interest was paid.


      Apr 29, 2010 at 12:16pm

      better recheck your fact sources. BCTF pension fund is not part of some all encompassing government plan. it is administered separately by its own board and determines investments. Go to the BCTF union website it has all the details.


      Apr 30, 2010 at 9:08am

      jansumi- re "Billions of dollars flying to - to where exactly..."

      That's the question I'm asking. As for where I'd like the money to go - to kids. Arts, music, sports, support programs. Keeping every school open with 50% - 75% enrollment levels but cutting back all the kids' programs is good only for the teachers. Apologies that I care more about the kids and effective use of available tax dollars than I do about the teachers union.

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      May 3, 2010 at 10:06am

      You're wrong Sophia,
      First, all these things you suggest must have staff present. Either volunteer time or paid time. I know how much volunteer time teachers and support staff give. Cutting back kids programs is not good for teachers either! Teachers care. Like it of not, Sophia, it is not the fault of the unions that the provincial government has been underfunding public education. As a parent with a child in grade 7, I have seen the decimation of public education over the years - caused by the provincial government continually underfunding districts. There is a reason this is happening across the province. It is the provincial government trying to destroy public education and people who buy into the bash the unions for the problem help that government. I strongly suggest you study educational funding and get all the facts straight.
      L. Clemens


      May 4, 2010 at 9:08am

      Paulsdottir - "I strongly suggest you study educational funding and get all the facts straight"

      Since you feel so qualified to speak about the facts - please provide them. I have a list of questions above that I look forward to seeing you answer (please be sure to include all stats and links to sources). Thanks!


      May 7, 2010 at 6:39pm

      I'm with Sophia. This is just more union whining. Why should teachers be making over 40 thousand when they get 2 months off? Privatize all education. Why should education be a right? Who cares if some kid has lousy irresponsible parents? Why is that my problem? I'm sick and tired of paying taxes and frankly, they're not my kids so why should I care about them? You know what we need in Vancouver? Less schools and more police and jails. Unions should be outlawed. The minimum wage should be abolished. Let the free market decide and who cares who lives or dies. Why should anyone care? This is a capitalist society isn't it? Wouldn't it make more sense to put our hard earned tax dollars into subsidizing private enterprise? Wouldn't it make more sense to put our hard earned tax dollars into hosting more world class events like the Olympics? Heck, we should be paying to bring back the Indy not putting in extra money to prevent kids from losing 10 days of class-time.

      (Sarcasm Off)

      Teachers do not command huge salaries. (The starting salary is around $35,000 and the average salary of all teachers is around $60,000, less than in Alberta, Ontario & The Yukon) Suggesting that teacher salaries and unions are the reason why the Province cannot afford to fund education is inaccurate and frankly when one looks at the facts, such an assertion is almost laughable.

      Public education requires ever increasing investment as new tools and technologies become part of the curriculum. More competitive countries seem to get that investing in public education creates the conditions that drive future wealth. This is really about priorities. Teacher salaries have stayed pretty constant when you factor in inflation so the union is not responsible for the provincial funding shortfall.

      If enrollment is too low to justify continued operations, schools get closed down and that's nothing new, but this one factor does not explain why the funding is not there to ensure children don't lose days of instruction. Does it seem fair to suggest that teachers, with their middle class salaries, should take a pay cut? Why don't we just spend our money better? Instead of rolling back wages for middle income earners who have to support a family, why don't we rollback the giant corporate tax cut of 2001? Or why don't we introduce a luxury sales tax, since wealth is becoming more stratified, and now almost one our of four children in BC lives below the poverty line?

      Let's just be human and pay to keep the kids in school, can't we?