Once the BC Liberals’ increased pre-election education funding grant is spent, school boards almost certainly will find themselves back in the red after the election.
That’s what budget plans show, and it’s a big story. But so far only three small newspapers across the province have zeroed in on this alarming likelihood.
You can forgive school trustees, parents, and other education partners for missing the coming cash shortage. After all, they have emerged from four years of damaging, cumulative cutbacks. When the Liberals handed out millions to education this year, school trustees like myself were pleased that our cash-strapped schools were about to begin a rebuilding process.
We had to pay close attention to see the looming funding freeze the BC Liberals had cleverly inserted into their three-year, projected plan.
But once the pre-election funding is spent, the hope of sustained reinvestment in our schools with stable funding vanishes. After 2006, the Liberals expect an appallingly inadequate $20 million annual increase to be divided among 60 school districts across the province.
And now that the initial euphoria is evaporating, B.C. secretary treasurers who have done the math are pointing with growing alarm to projected deficits for many, if not all, school boards in 2006–07 and 2007–08.
Thus, on examination, what we have in place, after the initial boost, is an ipso facto funding freeze for public schools in B.C. over the next few years. (See table at end of article.)
Charges of doublespeak
Using their massive public relations machine (30 press releases in education alone, not counting recycled announcements, since January), the BC Liberals are once more endeavouring to bamboozle a dubious public into believing that they are adequately funding public schools.
Their ongoing doublespeak recently drew an outraged letter to the Nelson Daily News from Bruce Schimpf, principal of Salmo Elementary School. He wrote,
“There are times when one gets so angry when reading the [Liberal] news releases in the paper that one has to respond...” In the news article in question, local Liberal MLA Blair Suffredine suggests that there have been no cuts to education since the Liberal government took over.
Bruce Schimpf nails the issue on the head when he points out, “The influx of millions of dollars is, in my opinion, simply a good portion of the money that was taken from the education system in the past few years and now as an election approaches is simply being returned. Somewhat similar to what the government has done to the healthcare system, money being taken away and now being miraculously returned to the system. Hello Mr. Campbell, the people of the Kootenays are not that naive.”
You will be told that the provincial government is generously funding public schools, that the per student grant is at record levels, and on and on with the Liberals' self-congratulatory and deceptive bulletins. But when the projected provincial $20 million annual grant is divided up across the province, school board budgets will tell a vastly different tale.
Even with the current boost in election funding, a few boards will be compelled to run deficits this year.
Funding should be stable
The sad but undeniable fact remains: despite the BC Liberals’ manipulation of figures, if re-elected, based on their three-year service plan, they will again put in place a pattern of two or more years of cutbacks. If they remain true to form, this will be followed by a substantial infusion of funding on the eve of another election. This yo-yo funding pattern guarantees instability in our public school system, with cuts to programs and services for our students the order of the day. The all too familiar pattern of staff layoffs will start all over again.
No wonder a recent national poll finds that politicians head the list of people who are viewed with tremendous distrust by an increasingly skeptical public.
It must be stated that the provincial government’s $20 million will not even cover the basic, ongoing statutory and non-statutory costs that school boards must meet over the next few years. These include: pensions and benefits, BC Hydro heating bills, a new provincial student information system, provincial curriculum initiatives imposed with no added implementation funding, increased transportation costs, and other inflationary costs.
The projected Consumer Price Index are 2.6% for 2006 and 2.9% for 2007, while the proposed provincial increase of $20 million to school boards amounts to a pathetic increase of 0.5% of the total provincial education budget.
Once more, the Liberals are planning to download costs to school boards. Recall the unfunded increase in teachers’ salaries in 2002. Expect more of their repeated use of one-time grants, criticized by school trustees at the trustees’ recent annual general meeting, which provide only temporary relief from cost pressures.
Education funding is not a tap that you turn off between elections and turn on when you are seeking re-election.
Source: Ministry of Education operating budget document, p.1, March 15, 2005
Noel Herron is a Vancouver School Board trustee. He chairs the VSB’s Personnel and Staff Services Committee.