(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.”