School board pushes back against province

The Coast Mountains School District (CMSD) is pushing back against a last-minute request from the Ministry of Education to find money for employee pay raises within its current budget.

The request came in the form of a letter from Education Minister Don McRae dated Dec. 3. In it, he asks that school districts across the province find 1.5 per cent within their current total budgets for a last round of collective bargaining with K-12 support staff.

McRae gives school boards until the middle of January to try to find the savings, which, for the CMSD, would amount to approximately $1.5 million over the next two years.

“I recognize that boards of education also face fiscal pressures at this time, and have varying capacity to generate savings. In some cases, finding savings will be very difficult,” the letter states.

The letter also states that the savings must be real and measurable, be on top of savings needed to meet budget targets, and not be generated by transferring costs to the public or by reducing service levels to the public. And they must not negatively impact the delivery of educational programming for students, states the letter.

But school boards across the province are not happy with the request, saying that finding savings like this in the middle of the school year is impossible, and have written letters to the province voicing their concerns.

At last week's Dec. 19 school board meeting, the CMSD board voted unanimously to join their colleagues by writing a letter to the ministry to be signed by board chair Erasmus on behalf of the trustees.

“We have the right to speak up and say, no that's not acceptable ... This wasn't planned and you don't step on us and tell us this is what you'd like us to do. Everybody budgets, everybody budgets, and this was not a part of our budget. I'm totally in favour of writing that letter,” said Kitimat trustee Linda Campbell.

“I find this method of operation highly offensive,” said Hazelton/Kitwanga trustee Lynn Newbury, noting she was in favour of a strongly worded letter.

School boards across the province have been in contact with each other, discussing how to respond to the request and how united they are as a group.

“This letter has created a huge storm among the [province's] trustees,” said School Board Chair Art Erasmus. “We're halfway through the year, we've budgeted carefully, we can't go back to the budget and all of the sudden say we can find one-and-a-half per cent.”

He also noted that there are numerous upcoming budget issues that haven't been funded by the province, including the upcoming increase in pension contributions, that still need to be addressed.

And board's have been questioning how they can make the cuts without negatively impacting students.

“There was an example given about the transportation minister, where they have discovered if the trucks going across the scales go across every third scale instead of every scale they would save $7000 by skipping all of those,” he said. “The point was made that we're not in that kind of business where we can save money on that kind of business operation.”

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