Patti Bacchus: School boards need to refuse more budget cuts

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      You’ve got to be kidding me.

      After a year of hearing schools are essential to students’ well-being and absolutely must stay open during the deadly pandemic, several B.C. school boards are finding themselves millions of dollars short in their budgets for the 2021-22 school year.

      We’ve heard it over and over again: students need the supports they get at school as much as they need the academic instruction. Many rely on school meal programs and support from counsellors and education assistants. Yet many of those supports are on the chopping block.

      How bad is it? B.C.’s largest school district, Surrey, is staring down a staggering funding shortfall of $43 million. That is not a typo. I’ve never heard of a B.C. school board with that big of a shortfall, and I’ve been paying attention to this stuff for a very long time. I’m pretty sure that’s a record, and an incredibly sad one at that.

      A chunk of that’s because Surrey isn’t expecting to receive targeted COVID-19 funding from the federal and provincial governments that it had this year, yet COVID-19 doesn’t appear to be leaving us any time soon, particularly when school-aged kids aren’t eligible for vaccines.

      School District 36 Surrey is facing a $43 million funding shortfall.

      Surrey is also feeling the pain of lower-than-expected enrollment due largely to decreased immigration, which means a loss of funding (thanks to the B.C. Liberals' move to a per-student funding model that the NDP government hasn’t got around to fixing), along with a loss of income from building rentals and international-student tuition.

      The Greater Victoria School District has a $7-million budget hole of its own, which has its senior managers proposing cuts to music programs, counsellors, programs for gifted students, education assistants who support students with special needs, support for early literacy programs, and meal programs for hungry kids.

      This is all so sickeningly familiar to me after the eight years I served as a school trustee under the B.C. Liberals, where school spending cuts were an annual rite of spring.

      Likewise, the Burnaby School Board is projecting a $14.4-million funding shortfall, and Richmond School District expects to be short $7.2 million, which means some very difficult decisions will have to be made in the absence of funding relief from the provincial budget, which will be tabled next week (April 20).

      In B.C., school boards are required to submit balanced budgets to the education minister by the end of June for the upcoming school year. If they fail to do so, they risk being fired, as I experienced in 2016 when my colleagues and I refused to approve cuts to elementary music programs, early literacy support, the district’s antiracism consultant, and more after years of making cuts to balance budgets that didn’t keep pace with inflation.

      At some point, enough has to be enough.

      It’s budget season for B.C. school boards

      School districts across B.C. are now developing their budget plans for next school year, and many are discovering the funding the province is allocating won’t cover the costs of maintaining staffing and services at this year’s level.

      The provincial government took away school districts’ ability to levy taxes themselves decades ago, so they rely on the province to provide them with funding aside from income they generate from renting out building space and charging international students to attend their schools.

      School funding comes in the form of provincial grants, starting with a base, per-student amount that’s expected to cover a wide range of expenses. While the grant may increase a small amount, as it has for next year (by a hair over four percent), it has to cover inflation and added costs the government decides will come out of the grant.

      This year, districts have to absorb additional costs (previously paid for from separate grants) to cover items such as provincially negotiated salary increases for staff and the employer health tax (mostly affects larger districts), which makes the grant increase not go as far as some might expect.

      While B.C. premier, Christy Clark oversaw major budget shortfalls to the province's school districts.

      The B.C. Liberals did a lot of cost downloading to school districts while it would crow about “more funding than ever!”. It’s like increasing your kid’s allowance by two dollars but telling them they now have to pay for their own lunch, which costs three dollars. I didn’t expect this from an NDP government, but here we are.

      We’ve seen this movie before

      I’ve been at this education thing a long time. How long? I remember working in communications at the Richmond school district when we were excited about the “class of 2000” starting kindergarten in the 1980s. I also had kids in school for a few decades, mainly during the B.C. Liberal era, and I later served eight years on the Vancouver School Board, all while the Liberals were in power. It was not fun.

      I remember a lot of tough years, and far too much budget cutting, but I’ve never seen anything like this year’s numbers.

      The austerity mindset we have in B.C. when it comes to our public education system has eroded services and supports available to students for decades. Parents with kids starting out in the system now don’t know that there was a time you didn’t have to fight to get support for a child with special needs or to have a band program in elementary school. They don’t know that kids used to be able to see a counsellor when they needed one, and students who were struggling with the transition to high school could ease into it in programs with smaller class sizes and more supports.

      Schools used to be able to offer a wider range of course options in high school to meet the needs of all students, instead of only running ones they can fill up to reduce costs of hiring more teachers.

      It’s disgusting to even consider cutting meal programs for hungry kids in a province this wealthy, or reducing the number of school counsellors or education assistants for students with special needs, as the Victoria board is considering this month. It’s madness.

      I’ve seen (and appeared in) this movie too many times. Premier John Horgan promised schools would get the funding they need, yet it seems nothing has changed.

      Premier John Horgan

      The sad truth is school districts have been balancing their budgets with financial band-aids for years. Often, it’s scraping together savings in one year to fill holes in the next (instead of spending it on students in the year it was intended to be spent), or luring in more international students to offset some of the bills.

      Well, many of those international students are staying home during the pandemic, and groups that normally pay to rent school space after hours aren’t doing that during the pandemic, and savings left from other years are depleted in many districts.

      The dysfunctional and broken education funding system is an insult to students and their families and to everyone who works in our school system.

      Slap in the face

      After what everyone who works in the school system has gone through this year—risking their health to keep schools open while going above and beyond to keep kids safe—it’s a huge slap in the face to tell them they’re going to have to tighten their belts and cut back on already lean budgets.

      Good grief, we’ve been hearing from government all year about how important schools are to students’ mental health, which makes it particularly perverse that districts are considering reductions to counsellors and education assistants, who help some of the most vulnerable students.

      It’s also a massive amount of work for school districts—that are already struggling to cope with the added pressures of maintaining COVID-19 protocols, trying to keep schools safe during a pandemic—to pore through financial documents, trying to find millions in savings from their already lean budgets.

      Surrey school district superintendent and CEO Jordan Tinney.

      One of the most impressive and hardworking education leaders during this pandemic is Jordan Tinney, Surrey superintendent of schools. His district is the hardest hit by COVID-19, and Tinney has been working seven days a week to oversee the most challenging year we’ve ever had in our school system. The thanks he gets from government is to figure out how to close a $43-million gap in his district’s budget. Unbelievable.

      Trustees need to take a stand and tell government to step in and stop this madness

      I’d had enough of education cuts in 2016 and refused to do government’s dirty work for them any longer. If they don’t want to provide enough funding for schools to meet the needs of kids, despite insisting schools needed to stay open throughout a deadly pandemic, then government should have to make the hard decisions about what to cut themselves.

      School trustees need to collectively say no to any more cuts. They’re elected to serve and represent their communities, and it’s time they grew backbones and started acting like it.

      No one runs to be a school trustee to take away a distressed teen’s counsellor or a school’s music program, or to cut meal programs for hungry kids. At least I hope they don’t.

      There’s still time for government to fix this problem with the obvious solution: more money. And sooner rather than later—and, hopefully, in the provincial budget that will be tabled next week. Districts are already busy working their exhausted behinds off crunching numbers to figure out how to balance their budgets by the end of June. If money is coming, tell them now so they don’t waste time trying to figure out cuts that may not be necessary.

      B.C.—the only province with an NDP government—ranks among the bottom in terms of how it funds its public schools. How does that make any sense?

      The provincial treasury will be in rough shape after all the pandemic costs, but we need to stop regarding education as an expense and look at it an important investment in B.C.’s human capital. You can pay now to develop educated, productive, and engaged citizens or pay later through increased healthcare and other social supports needed when schools fail kids and those kids become struggling adults.

      Bear in mind our government gives private schools more than $440 million in public funds each year while those schools can pick and choose who they accept and charge steep tuition fees to families. Government could start redirecting that funding to public schools and let private schools rely on private funding.

      The Horgan government needs to move quickly to assure districts they won’t need to make cuts and stop this madness now. That’s the message the B.C. School Trustees Association needs to make loud and clear as well.

      If government doesn’t deliver quickly, I challenge B.C.’s school trustees to say no to any more cuts and refuse to pass their budgets. B.C. kids need someone to stand up for them, and it’s time elected school trustees did just that.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.