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Vancouver School Board Refuses to Balance Budget

Vision and Green trustees band together to reject $24 million in cuts.

Katie Hyslop 29 Apr 2016TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is the Tyee's education and youth reporter.

After making cuts in 15 of the last 16 budgets, Vancouver School Board trustee Allan Wong insisted during last night's board meeting at Gladstone Secondary that "this is the year that the board must take a stand."

Faced with making $24-million in cuts to provide a provincially-mandated balanced budget, the majority of trustees agreed with Wong and became the first Vancouver board in 31 years to vote against it.

Wong and his fellow Vision Vancouver trustees' rejection of the budget was expected -- a Vision press release earlier that day promised it.

Nor was it unexpected that their political rivals, the four Non-Partisan Association trustees, voted in favour of the budget.

They were concerned a rejection would lead the government to fire the board and replace it with a government-appointed trustee as happened in 1985.

"My belief is the government will appoint a trustee and they will be ruthless," said NPA trustee Penny Noble. "They can overturn and overthrow every policy the school board has ever created, every vote, including a vote to not sell school lands."

Green trustee Janet Fraser shares that belief, and it's not unfounded. In 2012, the ministry fired the Cowichan Valley school board for refusing the pass a balanced budget, replacing it with then-Surrey school district superintendent Mike McKay.

But that didn't stop Fraser from siding with Vision and rejecting the budget, becoming the deciding vote.

Hundreds of parents, teachers, and public education supporters have attended public consultation meetings on the budget over the last month. Last night's meeting was not so well attended, with at least one-third of the seats left empty.

But Fraser said the flurry of emails she received from parents asking her to vote against the budget helped her reach the decision.

"If the action of our school board and the attention we get could drive education to be something that so many voters in B.C. care about, then maybe the direct consequences in our district will be worth that," she said, receiving the first of many standing ovations from parents last night.

What's on the chopping block

Trustees from all parties acknowledge the $24 million in cuts required to balance the budget went too far.

Among the nearly 130 full-time equivalent positions on the chopping block were literacy and early-intervention teachers, English Language Learning teachers, multicultural workers, anti-homophobia and racism teacher mentors, secondary teachers, and administration, as well as the coveted elementary band and strings program.

Prior to the budget vote, trustees voted unanimously in favour of saving the anti-homophobia mentor position for one year by taking the salary from the $1-million severance budget, against the financial advice of the secretary treasurer.

Where they disagreed was on the board's relationship with government, and what the Ministry of Education is likely to do next.

Explaining his decision to vote in favour of the budget, NPA trustee Christopher Richardson expressed disappointment with the board's frequent requests for more government funding.

"If you poke somebody in the eye and say that you don't like them, and you never will, and then demand more money, it is unlikely that you will get any more money," he said.

In a scrum following the meeting, NPA trustee Stacy Robertson said further budget cuts could be avoided if the district closed more schools.

"It's a difficult issue to talk about, but the fact of the matter is when you have a per pupil funding model, you have to maximize the space efficiency," he said, adding the current budget shortfall wouldn't have been as great had trustees not decided against closing schools back in 2010. "That may not be a great way to look at it, but that's the reality of our funding."

'System is broken'

It's that funding model that Families Against Cuts to Public Education member Jen Stewart wants to change.

While the mother of two expressed mixed emotions following the meeting, she echoed trustee Fraser's hopes that the board's budget rejection will make education funding a 2017 election issue.

"I've never really thought that the government would come out and hand the [Vancouver School Board] the money that it needs and say, 'Okay, you forced our hand,'" said Stewart, who advocated for the board to reject the budget.

But the issue is bigger than the $24 million, she added, including hundreds of millions in overdue maintenance, capital, and seismic upgrading costs in Vancouver alone.

"We as a society in this province, we need to have a discussion that starts at the very basics about what do we expect our public education system to do, how do we expect it to do that, how much does that cost, and how are we going to fund that? Because the system is broken right now," Stewart said.

While the board made its decision last night, the ball is now in the ministry's court, and the battle won't be over until the final deadline for submitting a balanced budget passes on June 30.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, BC Politics

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