Government forces school district cuts

School board must find $600,000 in current budget.

A letter from the minister of education brought little in the way of holiday cheer to members of the School District #83 board.

The board was informed by Don McRae, the newest education minister, that the school district will have to scrape approximately $600,0000 out of this year’s budget, which was passed last May, in order to cover provincially mandated wage increases.

The school board has also been put on notice that this amount will be doubled for next year.

Every provincial public-sector employee whose contracts expire on or after Dec. 31, 2011 falls under the B.C. government’s 2012 Co-operatives Gains mandate. This means the province is not providing any additional funding for wage settlements and the increases must be found within current budgets.

“We certainly weren’t very happy and across the province, boards are not happy,” says Bobbi Johnson, school board chair. “We have closed schools, cut staff, re-done our transportation system — we run a pretty tight ship. There’s really nowhere to turn without cutting programs and that means taking away services from kids.”

In addition, the budget reductions must be found by mid-January so the provincial bargaining unit can start talks with CUPE for its contract that expired in June.

The school board made a motion at their last regular meeting to send a letter to the minister asking for answers to trustees’ questions, as well as expressing their concern about their ability to meet both the requirements and the deadline.

“To have this hit us mid-stream when we’ve already got everything allocated… Let’s just say we have serious concerns,” says Johnson.

But Johnson explains the government’s policy will also apply to other employees, which will require additional budget adjustments.

“The teachers are going to want the same (wage increase) and the principals… And when roughly 80 per cent of our budget is already devoted to salaries, there’s not a lot of places to look for these  so-called savings.”

Adding additional pressure is the government directive that states budget savings must not be generated by transferring costs to the public or by reducing service levels.

“To be clear, generated savings obtained by boards must not negatively impact the delivery of educational programming for students,” writes McRae in his letter to boards across the province.

The North Okanagan-Shuswap board is hoping for further clarification to come quickly in order to attempt to meet the government’s mid-January deadline.

The issue will return to the board table at the regularly scheduled meeting on Jan. 8.