Patti Bacchus: Are budget recommendations for schools too good to be true?

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      “Right on!”

      “Sounds too good to be true!”

      “Now we’re talking!”

      Those were the first comments on B.C. School Trustees’ Association (BCSTA) president Gordon Swan’s Facebook post about the B.C. government’s budget committee’s recommendations regarding K-12 funding. Then old Buzzkill Bacchus chimed in to say “The committee usually produces good recommendations re K-12 funding, which in turn are largely ignored in the budget. Let’s hope this year is different, but I won’t be holding my breath.”

      Here’s why you shouldn’t hold your breath either.

      Each fall, a committee of MLAs heads out to tour the province and gather public input regarding what the provincial government should prioritize in its budget. Groups and individuals can present to the committee—which comprises MLAs from all parties in the legislature—at public meetings, send in written briefs, or respond to an online survey.

      The committee then compiles a report based on what they heard and produces a series of recommendations for government—and, particularly, the finance minister—to consider as they prepare the next year’s budget.

      I presented to the committee each of the six years I chaired the Vancouver School Board (VSB), and generally had pretty much the same ask each time. We needed stable, adequate, and predictable funding for operations and more money for seismic upgrades, new schools, and building maintenance. We needed more funding to support students with special needs and we needed government to fully fund all provincially mandated cost increases to school boards, including salary, benefit, medical premium and pensions increases, and the costs of implementing any new, provincially mandated initiatives (oh, hello there, new curriculum).

      After a few years of doing pretty much the same presentation, I began referring to the budget committee as the “banging-my-head-against-a-wall committee”, since the it would produce almost the exact same recommendations for education every year, and government would ignore them.

      Am I jaded and cynical when it comes to the annual B.C. budget-consultation ritual? Well, yes, of course I am. You try chairing the VSB for six years under a B.C. Liberal government and see if you don’t end up the same way.

      Which brings me to this year’s recommendations and the fact that I still have a glimmer of optimism, even though I should probably know better by now. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Which may mean I’m just crazy, but I think it’s reasonable to hope that a different government could end up with a different result, although I still won’t be holding my breath.

      The recommendations

      The budget committee’s report includes 100 recommendations for the 2019 budget, grouped under headings in categories that include economic development, environment, health care, housing, social services, transportation, and so on.

      Kindergarten to Grade 12 education gets 10 recommendations, which include the need for sustainable, predictable funding for operations and increased funding for seismic upgrades, school-building upgrades, and new schools, and more funding to support students with special needs. Sound familiar? Yup.

      In addition to those oft-repeated recommendations from the past several years, one of this year’s recommendation calls for funding to “develop and implement programs to support Indigenous students that target and address the unique needs of Indigenous learners based on best practice from school districts with good completion rates.”

      A second new recommendation calls for funding “to educate teachers on how to integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms,” in response to the Truth and Reconciliation’s calls to action.

      Additionally, there are recommendations to provide funding to support teacher recruitment and retention. They’re all good and important recommendations.

      So, no big surprises and mostly the same recommendations the committee, in its various iterations, has produced for years, to little or no avail.

      What happens next

      The finance minister, her staff, and cabinet prepare a provincial budget that’s presented to the legislature and public in February. During the years I was a school trustee (2008 to 2016), I’d have my fingers crossed that the budget would reflect the committee’s recommendations for education funding, but they seldom did. The whole exercise seemed like a waste of time, hence the “banging my head” moniker.

      Will this year be any different? Finance Minister Carole James has a tough task ahead. She needs to figure out how to fund a range of bold and laudable initiatives, including major child-care, housing, and transportation projects. She also knows the teachers’ contract expires in 2019 and that they’ll be looking for salary and benefit increases and strong contract language around class size and composition, particularly in light of their landmark win at the Supreme Court of Canada.

      That’s not going to come cheap. She also knows that after a decade-and-a-half of B.C. Liberal neglect, there’s a huge backlog of expensive school capital projects that need money, including seismic upgrades or rebuilds, new schools in growing communities, and school-building upgrades and repairs.

      There’s also Education Minister Rob Fleming’s secretive education-funding review underway that has educators and parents worried about changes to how special education is funded. Fleming, James and anyone who has been paying attention know that what’s really needed is more money to support students with special needs, and that finding a new way to divvy up not enough money won’t solve much at all.

      Although I have a ton of respect for James, and I think she’s a fine finance minister, if I were a betting woman my money would be on a budget that, once again, fails to reflect the budget committee’s education-funding recommendations. I’m sure James will try to do better than the Liberals did, and I hope she can figure out a way to do that.

      But with most of the money the NDP earmarked for education-funding improvments having to go to pay for teachers who have to be hired as a result of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in the B.C. Teachers' Federation’s court case, it’s going to be tough enough to find sufficient to cover a wage increase and money for much-needed new schools and seismic upgrades, much less to make any other major improvements to education funding.

      So much for stable, predictable, and adequate funding.

      Which brings me back to my comments on Swan’s Facebook post about the budget-committee recommendations. They may well turn out to be too good to come true, and I, for one, won’t be holding my breath when it comes to education funding in the 2019 B.C. budget.

      But I’ll still keep my fingers crossed.

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