Patti Bacchus: How should the VSB spend its money?

    1 of 3 2 of 3

      How should the Vancouver School Board spend its half-billion-dollar 2019–20 operating fund? Now’s your chance to have a say, but don’t get any big ideas.

      Almost all of the VSB’s money is committed to staff salaries and benefits, and the basic costs of operating the schools. Most of the VSB’s funding comes from the provincial treasury, and it’s doled out on a per-student basis. The per-student grant increased a smidgen this year, by $49 per student, increasing it from $7,419 to $7,468. That works out to about a buck a week, give or take, which won’t even address basic inflationary increases from one year to the next.

      VSB managers predict there will be 599 fewer students enrolled in VSB schools next year, which will cost the district about $4.5 million in lost per-student funding. They’re advising trustees that reductions in special education staffing—compared with this year—will be required to help balance the budget. They’re also proposing increasing the $25 elementary school-supply fees by $10, to help cover a funding shortfall.

      In somewhat better news, the provincial government’s increased the supplemental amounts to districts provided to support students with special-needs designations. Grants for students who require a high level of support due to having multiple physical needs or those who are both deaf and blind, fall into the government’s “level 1” funding category.

      Grants for those students are now $42,400, up from $38,800. Grants for students who fall into “level 2”, which includes students on the autism spectrum, are up $800 next year, going from $19,400 to $20,200. That’s an improvement, but still won’t fully cover the actual costs of supporting students who require one-to-one and specialized support.

      The details of what VSB managers are proposing for next year’s budget were presented in a PowerPoint Tuesday night (April 9), and explain that while the district expects an enrolment decline, its budget will increase by just over one per cent. Many costs are going up, however, including salaries for teachers, principals, and vice principals, although the budget shows a reduction in overall salary costs for education assistants, support staff, and substitutes. Employee benefit costs are up a few million dollars as well.

      Senior staff say they're recommending a status quo budget this year, but Patti Bacchus doesn't see it that way.
      Carlito Pablo

      A new approach to developing the budget

      Those of us who have followed VSB budget processes for years will note its new management team takes a different approach to the district’s budget-development process than was VSB practice for decades. I’m an old dog who doesn’t like new tricks, so it’s not surprising I preferred the old way, which clearly showed any changes to the budget that were being recommended. And all changes required trustees’ approval.

      Now, the budget is presented as already balanced, with management having decided what to add or subtract, and then presenting it to the board and with some additional proposals to consider as it works through a meandering—and somewhat confusing—process between now and the end of the school year. It’s an opaque approach to tackling a complex and important task. I don’t like it.

      Management seems to be saying “here’s what we’ve already decided” and the board will get to vote on any changes decided from this point on, and by the way, here’s our list of what the board should consider. It’s not clear how elected officials can bring priorities forward, although Trustee Jennifer Reddy tried to get clarity on that at Tuesday’s meeting, but she didn’t really succeed.

      The budget-development process may not matter to most, but what will matter to many is that despite the NDP government’s promises, it isn’t providing funding that will enable school boards to restore much of what was cut under the B.C. Liberals. That's apart from paying for the teachers that need to be hired to comply with the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2016 decision in the long-running dispute between the former government and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation.

      Status quo isn’t good enough

      VSB staff are referring to their 2019–20 budget proposal as a “status quo” budget, which is really isn’t. That's because it contains reductions to spending in some areas compared with this year, notably the reduction in education assistants, a $1.5 million reduction in special-education spending and a $3.2 million cut to the already inadequate supply budget. But even if it was status quo, that isn’t what most were expecting under an NDP government, and that’s the real problem.

      B.C. still lags behind the rest of the country in terms of how much it funds public schools, and it’s spending far less on schools as a proportion of the GDP than it used to. Education makes up a much smaller portion of overall provincial spending than it did last time the NDP was in government.

      VSB managers are proposing charging elementary students’ parents an additional $10 a year for school supplies, as its $25 fee hasn’t been increased in decades. Given the NDP promised parents wouldn’t have to fundraise anymore if they were elected, an increase in fees for basic supplies students need to participate in class may not go over well.

      If anything, I would have expected the NDP to put an end to charging school-supply fees at all. It may not seem like much money for most families, but for some, and particularly those with more than one child, it adds to the financial stress of trying to raise kids in an expensive city, and increases the costs of sending kids back to school each fall.

      VSB managers are also proposing increasing the district’s communications department, which has already doubled from two employees to four in the two years since I was on the board. This appears to be in response to criticism about lack of meaningful consultation, but I’m not convinced another communications staffer is the answer.

      Trustees are the ones who need to step up and participate in public consultation.

      Managers are also suggesting the trustees consider approving funding for a business-development manager position, with the hope that it would be funded from the “estimated additional revenues and cost savings that will be generated through this role identifying new revenue opportunities, implementing and evaluating partnerships, sponsorships, donations and grants”.

      The VSB tried something similar to that several years ago and it failed, as most donors and grant providers don’t want to pay management salaries or have their funds go into the district’s general revenue. The costs of administering donor funds through a separate VSB foundation, along with accounting and reporting, ended up costing the district more than it was worth.

      What donors generally want is for their funds to be targeted to a specific program that directly supports students. Many do exactly that and are given a tax receipt by the VSB, and there’s no need to create a new management position to get involved.

      In what I see as a positive sign, VSB managers are proposing restoring the district’s antiracism position, which was cut by the government-appointed trustee after the board I was on was fired in 2016. I don’t see any sign of the popular elementary band and strings programs being restored, although I note the district spent far more on consultants last year than the music programs used to cost.

      I know how much was stripped out of the school system over the last 20 years, as I had kids in the system and chaired the VSB for six of those painful years. I was a trustee for eight long years under the B.C. Liberal government and voted on seven rounds of budget cuts before I finally couldn’t do it anymore and voted no (and got fired for it). Enough was enough.

      I don’t know if we’ll ever see much of what was lost be restored, and parents and students today probably don’t realize how much more there was to support their kids a couple of decades ago.

      Having said all that, you and I have a chance to have a say on the budget before the trustees vote on it later this spring.

      Education Minister Rob Fleming might take notice if trustees prepared a needs-based budget.

      If you want to speak directly to the board and its senior managers, you can sign up to speak at the April 23 budget meeting that will be held at Mount Pleasant elementary. To register, email You can also send written submissions to that email address, and you have until April 30 to respond to the VSB’s budget survey here.

      The survey asks respondents to prioritize things like spending on mental health and wellness, furniture and equipment replacement, funding for support workers to help special needs students doing work experience, and restoring antiracism staffing and teacher mentor positions.

      As a trustee, I found something odious about asking people to rank or prioritize things like support for students with special needs, which is a human-rights issue, against things like furniture replacement. This fits into the austerity mindset that we can’t possibly have nice things like up-to-date equipment and supports in place for all students who need it.

      After consulting and hearing budget presentations and reading written submissions, each year I came to the same conclusion: we need to stop pitting one area against another and collectively advocate for the funding required to have well-equipped, appropriately staffed and resourced schools in safe and well-maintained buildings. I’m looking at you, Education Minister Rob Fleming, and the VSB trustees should be too.

      Which reminds me, the VSB passed a motion last year to create a “needs budget” but never actually got one done. We did one every year that I was on the VSB, and it was an important advocacy tool to identify what the district needed to give every student their best chance to succeed. It’s a document that lists what needs to be added to the budget and tells government what the gap is between how much it funds schools, and how much more it needs to provide. The trustees need to get busy and get that done.

      Trustees need to tell Fleming that the status quo isn’t good enough, and they need to present him with a needs budget that tells him exactly what the district requires.

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