Patti Bacchus: School counsellors and librarians on the chopping block in VSB’s "balanced" draft 2018/19 budget

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      The Vancouver school board (VSB) kicked off its 2018/19 budget-setting process last week by releasing a draft budget that appeared to be already balanced by using money left over from a previous year, with no cuts, aside from eliminating a couple of vacant, nonteaching positions.

      It almost seemed too good to be true—and, alas, it was.

      It turns out the “balanced” budget got that way by cutting 36.85 full-time-equivalent “nonenrolling” teacher positions. You wouldn’t’ know that by looking at the draft budget document the VSB put out last week, though, because it doesn’t list the nonenrolling reductions as budget proposals.

      Which is bizarre.

      Those who had paid attention during a staff PowerPoint presentation at a VSB budget committee meeting last week might have noticed a slide (the 15th in the deck) showing “budget changes for non-enrolling teacher staffing”, with a reduction of almost 37 full-time-equivalent positions for next year. That’s a huge and painful loss in a category that many would say is already understaffed after years of cuts under the former B.C. Liberal government.

      Yet the draft VSB budget was presented as balanced with no cuts beyond two vacant nonteaching positions. Bizarre, really, particularly after the BCTF’s big court win that was supposed to make sure students had access to more specialist teachers, not fewer.

      The fine print on this one is that the old contract language that’s now been restored had student-teacher ratios for nonenrolling teaching positions (counsellors, libarians, etcetera) that actually required fewer of them than previous iterations that the VSB determined students actually needed. With the old contracts now back in force, someone at the VSB figured they could just go with the minimums required in the teachers’ contracts instead of thinking about what students actually need.

      Good grief.

      Leaving these cuts out of the budget document is mind-boggling

      How someone figured the VSB could cut counsellors, school librarians, special-education resource teachers, and ESL (now called ELL: English-language learner) teachers and then claim the budget is already balanced without cuts is mind-boggling. How the board chair let the draft budget document go out like that is beyond me. Board governance 101 requires that public board documents be as clear and concise as possible, with significant changes highlighted and easy to spot. This one is anything but.

      Speakers at this week’s (April 24) VSB public budget meeting gave trustees and VSB managers an earful about the “nonenrolling” cuts, with a lot of discussion about the critical and complex role school counsellors and librarians play in supporting students.

      Anyone who has spent time in VSB schools knows that they need more counsellors, librarians, and special-education teachers, and they need them pretty desperately. Students can wait weeks to get an appointment with a counsellor as it is. School libraries are only open for limited hours. Whoever thought they could chop almost 37 of these jobs without causing harm to students and a public backlash has a lot to learn about the VSB.

      Trustees seem to be getting the message

      It sounds, however, like trustees are getting the message that this year’s budget-setting process is inadequate and creating confusion and that nonenrolling cuts are unacceptable. Board chair Janet Fraser announced this week that they’ve added another public meeting to the schedule for May 2, and they’ll have a revised draft proposal to consider then. Presumably, the board is directing its managers to bring back something that clearly shows what they’re actually proposing to cut in order to balance the budget.

      It’s a good move but it comes on short notice for parent advisory councils and others that need time to meet and prepare feedback. Given the opaque nature of the process to date, I doubt most realized the plan thus far is to balance the budget by chopping school counseling and librarian time.

      Let’s hope the revised document is clearer and lays out all cuts being considered to balance next year’s budget.

      Timing important for board vote

      In most years, the VSB votes on its budget by April 27. It’s actually required to, according to its own policy, and for good reason. If the board decides to cut positions and people, notice has to go out in May and other staffing allocations need to be determined so schools can post jobs and organize classes for the coming school year. This year, the board has decided it won’t vote until late May—and will do its final budget vote at the end of June—as part of a new process.

      Presumably, management will just go ahead with any budget-relating staffing changes in May, regardless of what the board decides later on. It will be interesting to see how all that plays out and whether anyone challenges the board for violating its own policy.

      If the trustees vote to bring back the elementary band-and-strings program that was cut after the government fired the previous board—as it’s being urged to do by some—it would be tough to get it up and running by September if the decision isn’t made until late May or June. The same goes for reopening the Main Street Adult Education Centre at Gladstone school that was closed by the government-appointed trustee last year against public pressure to keep it open. They’ll need to figure something out soon regarding the nonenrolling positons as well, before those in them now start applying for other postings.

      Still time to give your feedback

      The VSB’s budget survey is brief and only lets you identify your top three priorities and not much else. It’s open until May 2 and only takes a couple of minutes, so what the heck: do it anyway. From what I can tell, you can fill it in as many times as you like. I’ll be interested to see if the survey format provides the board with any truly useful feedback. You can call me doubtful about that at this point, but I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

      You can still attend a few more public budget meetings if you’re so inclined, although it’s not clear to me if members of the public can speak at any of the remaining meetings. In previous years, we’d hold at least two meetings for public input, and more if there was demand for them, but that doesn’t appear to be the case this time. It looks like your best bet for giving feedback is by emailing or phoning the trustees directly (their email addresses and phone numbers can be found here by clicking on their names). You can also email this generic budget email address, but it may or may not get the trustees’ attention:

      Restoration budget: Will they or won’t they?

      When I was on the VSB, we made it a tradition of submitting a “restoration budget” to go along with the official one, and we’d submit both to the government. The purpose was to document all the cuts the board had to make since 2002 and show what would be required to restore services to what they were when the B.C. Liberals first took office.

      With a new government in power, it’s important to let them know what it will take to give todays’ students the same opportunities and supports that were available to kids like mine, who started school the last time the NDP government was in power and before all the cuts under the B.C. Liberal government. So much has been stripped away over those years and kids today deserve a lot more than what they’re getting, even after the BCTF’s court win.

      It’s up to the trustees to bring the restoration budget forward, and OneCity Vancouver trustee Carrie Bercic raised the idea at the April 24 meeting, only to have it quickly shot down by Non-Partisan Association trustee Lisa Dominato. It sounded like Bercic intends to bring it up again at a future budget meeting and I hope she gets majority support. It’s important to continue to advocate for funding, and a restoration budget is an effective tool to do that.

      For as long as I can remember, when it came to budget time VSB managers would prepare a series of proposals to balance the district’s operating budget. This could include finding increased revenue (primarily through building rentals and international student revenue) and cutting spending, depending on how much of a funding shortfall or surplus there was, although there was almost always a shortfall (because government funding increases were less than inflationary or other cost increases).

      Then the board would consult the public and district stakeholder groups on the proposals and vote on them as proposed or make changes based on feedback. It wasn’t a perfect process, but it was pretty straightforward and everyone knew what was on the table and could provide informed feedback and advice.

      This year, VSB managers, who are mostly new, presented a draft proposal that was already balanced, apparently by cutting almost 37 nonenrolling teaching positions and using some money left over from a couple of years ago to cover the shortfall. This process so far seems to have a lot folks scratching their heads and venting frustration. Let’s hope they can get it back on track in time for trustees to be able to make informed decisions when it’s time to vote.

      It’s almost as if an almost entirely new management team that’s never been through a single VSB budget cycle tossed an established and well-understood process that’s been in place for decades for a new one that has everyone confused.


      Public budget feedback so far

      The feedback at this week’s VSB budget meeting called for several things, in addition to scrapping the cuts to librarians and counsellors. A CUPE 15 representative called for reinstatement of career-information advisors that were cut over a couple of previous budget cycles.

      Teacher representatives said that despite the BCTF court win, their members are frustrated and demoralized and say this is the hardest year they’ve experienced because of both their contracts not being fully restored and burnout due to the ongoing teacher shortage.

      The teacher representatives asked the board to continue to advocate for funding to ensure contract language is fully restored next year, saying hundreds of VSB classes are still in violation of restored contract language and students have been denied thousands of hours of nonenrolling teacher support this year due to those teachers being redeployed to cover for the shortage of substitute teachers.

      There were also calls to reinvest in adult education and to reopen the Main Street adult-education that was located at Gladstone before being closed last year by a government-appointed trustee. Teachers are also requesting an increase in district teacher consultants to support the implementation of B.C.'s new curriculum, along with increased funding for learning resources.

      Parent Alexander Dow called for the board to restore the elementary band-and-strings program and to make it an inclusive program available to all students. Dow also called for increased spending on textbooks and other learning resources, along with money for building maintenance.

      Aaron Leung, a 2015 VSB graduate, made a compelling case at the April 24 meeting for keeping school counsellors by telling his own story about how critical they were in supporting him through some difficult periods. He said he found this year’s budget process and survey “lacklustre” and called for greater transparency, especially regarding the planned cuts to nonenrolling teachers.

      I couldn’t agree more.

      This year’s budget process goes right through until late June, so there’s still time to have your say. Check here for more information.