Patti Bacchus: B.C. budget news isn’t enough for public schools

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      The B.C. School Trustees Association has called this week’s B.C. news for K-12 schools “stable”, and the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils has called it “safe”, which may or may not be damning with faint praise.

       I’m calling it a “could be worse” budget for public schools, although, overall, it’s a very good budget.

      School boards didn’t get the financial relief they were hoping for in the budget announcement, which didn’t focus on public education. As B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) president Glen Hansman noted on Twitter: teachers will still be paying for teaching resources and classroom supplies out of their own pockets; some school districts won’t have enough funding to “offer the full range of the necessary special education supports and services”; some staff and students will still have to use their own devices and data plans to access the Internet at school; and parents will still be fundraising for basics and having to spend money on private schools to get specialized supports that their kids require.

      In short, the B.C. public-school system’s funding problems are far from fixed, despite some good news for schools in Carole James’s budget announcement.

      Most additional funding already earmarked

      The budget has some impressive-sounding numbers for education, but that doesn’t mean school boards are getting much, if anything, in terms of money for new or restored initiatives in their districts. Pretty much all the additional education funding is earmarked for specific purposes and not up to school boards to allocate for local priorities.

      Don’t get me wrong: there was some good news for school boards, just not enough of it. It could have been a lot worse.

      The budget includes “record level” school capital-project funding, including dollars for major seismic upgrade and building replacements, new schools to meet growing enrollment, and expansions to make room for more classrooms. There’s a lot of catching up to do after 16 years of B.C. Liberal neglect of K-12 education infrastructure, which resulted in a huge backlog of deferred maintenance and deteriorating buildings, dangerous delays in getting at-risk schools seismically upgraded, and overcrowding in growing communities. So kudos to government for taking that on.

      Unfortunately, that capital spending will come with a lot of frustration and disappointment if the NDP government keeps funding capital projects according to the miserly “area standards” formula devised under the B.C. Liberals, which is inadequate and often results in replacement and new schools that lack the kind of space older schools have. Education Minister Rob Fleming would be wise to work with school boards to devise a new formula that allows boards to build schools that work well for their communities and will leave a lasting legacy of a government that cares about public education.

      Education Minister Rob Fleming

      There’s also what appears to be a hefty increase in operating funds, but, in reality, that will only cover inflationary costs, enrollment growth, and pay for the teachers that need to be hired in order for school boards to comply with collective-agreement language that was effectively restored by the BCTF’s 2016 Supreme Court of Canada victory. The B.C. Liberals would have had to do exactly the same thing if they were still in government.

      Programs lost under Liberals will stay gone for now

      The 2019 budget will, unfortunately, still leave school-board managers crunching numbers to figure out how to balance their budgets for the 2019/20 school year and cover the usual inflationary expenses to keep doing what they’ve been doing from one year to the next.

      They’ll get more exact figures in mid-March, when government announces the 2019/20 per-student funding grants, and that’s when we’ll start to hear what kind of budget shortfalls they expect and whether cuts will be required to balance their budgets.

      What they won’t be doing is looking at restoring programs and supports that were lost during the years the B.C. Liberals were in government or looking at new programs or investments to support implementation of the new curriculum. They won’t be looking at hiring a lot more specialized staff to support students with special needs, because there isn’t going to be money for that, even if they could find qualified candidates to fill the jobs.

      They won’t be telling department heads there will finally be money to buy supplies for science labs, shop classes, or other important classroom supplies, because there isn’t any.

      Yes, it could be a lot worse, for sure. I remember the years the Liberals would tell school boards they weren’t getting money to cover increased costs and that they would have to pay for things they hadn’t had to pay for in the past, like insurance premiums.

      Money for teacher salary increases?

      You won’t see anything in the education budget earmarked to cover the costs of any salary and benefit increases that will likely be agreed on in the upcoming bargaining between government and the BCTF. The teacher’s contract expires at the end of this year, and I’m expecting that whatever gets negotiated will fall in line with what other public-sector unions have settled for, two-percent increases a year for three years. If government agrees to anything more than that, other public-sector unions' “me too” clauses would kick in and they’d all have to get it. That would pretty much blow the provincial budget, so I don’t see it happening.

      The devil will be in the contract details, in things like the salary grid steps and class-size and -composition language. School boards will be watching carefully to ensure that all costs associated with the new contract are fully funded by government.

      That money for salary increases will likely come from the hundreds of millions set aside in the provincial budget for public-sector wage increases.

      How the VSB will set its 2019/20 Budget

      Each of B.C.’s 60 school districts have their own budget-development process, but most follow a similar pattern. The Vancouver School Board’s (VSB) senior managers have already met behind closed doors with representatives of employee and parent groups to hear privately what they want to see in the district’s budget for next year. This is a new practice and not something we did when I was on the VSB. I preferred those discussions to happen around the table in public meetings so everyone could hear each other’s concerns and priorities. It made for a collaborative and informed process.

      You can bet VSB accountants are already working on budget options, and once they get their firmer mid-March numbers that show them more precisely what they’ll be getting in funding for the next school year, they’ll put their final touches on a budget proposal for the trustees’ consideration. It will be presented to the board and the public on April 9. They’ll post an online survey asking what people’s priorities are for the budget; it will go up on April 8 and be open until April 26.

      I doubt the survey will be much help for trustees, who may be faced with difficult decisions, but surveys make people feel like they are getting a chance to have a say, and they’re an easy way to do it. I never liked budget surveys myself, and they run the risk of giving the impression of pitting one group or area against another, reinforcing an austerity mindset that students shouldn’t expect to have nice things like band programs and properly heated classrooms.

      Those who want a chance to speak directly to trustees will get two opportunities: on April 23 and May 15, at public meetings. In my day, we held a couple of these each year at Mount Pleasant Elementary School in East Vancouver in an effort to be more accessible to people who might not find it convenient to come to the VSB’s West Side offices. The new board doesn’t seem to be so inclined, so anyone who wants to speak will have to go to the board office at Broadway and Granville Street, which, in fairness, is a fairly accessible location by transit. I always preferred the realness of a school gym for budget meetings to remind everyone what we were talking about, instead of the formal boardroom.

      Needs Budgets and Advocacy

      I enjoy spring a lot more now than I did when I was a trustee. April was a month of fitful sleeps and a churning stomach as we weighed what tended to be a series of options that would hurt someone, somehow. If it wasn’t a kid losing support or a program that was making school work for them, then it was someone who would be losing their job. One year we had a family with a young boy approach the speaker’s table at Mount Pleasant. They told us about how their son had survived a difficult medical condition that required a liver transplant. He was one of a few VSB kids who was visited at home by a special teacher. The teacher was one of the boy’s few consistent contacts with the world outside hospitals and his home. And that teacher’s positon was on the chopping block.

      It was a good thing I was sitting down as the boy’s parents spoke, because my knees would have given way if I’d been standing. In the end, we found something else to cut instead, by somehow wringing blood from a stone.

      I heard many, many compelling and heartbreaking stories at those public meetings, and they stay with me to this day and motivate me to stay involved as an education advocate. So many kids deserve so much better than they’re getting in our public schools.

      There are often few good decisions in the VSB budget, just some that aren’t as bad as the others. My advice to the trustees is to do the best they can and put their effort into building a strong and compelling case to government about why they need to do better for all B.C. public-school kids. Prepare a “needs budget” that shows how the district should really be funded, if we want to give each student the best possible chance to succeed in school. Don’t accept that all students can’t have nice things and comfortable, well-equipped and fully staffed places to learn. They can if we collectively make it a priority.

      Write letters to editors about it; post on social media; invite reporters in to hear about why government should increase funding for programs that need it.

      Don’t fall into the austerity trap of accepting that students should have to go without some things they need in order to have others, and that some will have to get sent home because we don’t have enough staff to support their needs. We can do better, and it’s the trustees’ job to explain how and why.

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