On December 3, 2012, School District 5 received a startling document from the Ministry of Education, saying they will need to find three per cent savings over two years in their budget to cover salary increases for support staff.
The letter was sent from Minister Don McRae, stating that under the Co-operative Gains Mandate, public sector employers were able to negotiate modest wage increases so long as the savings could be found within the existing budget. Costs must not be passed on to the public and service delivery levels must be maintained.
“There’s no way in the world that we can save three per cent. We’re scrambling,” said Frank Lento, SD5 board chair.
Lento said the December 3 letter was the first they’d heard of the need to find savings in a budget that was completed back in June of 2012.
“There was no consultation whatsoever,” he said. “It was a Merry Christmas on December the third.”
The letter was followed up by a conference call with school boards on December 11.
The letter, signed by Minister of Education Don McRae, went out to all school districts in the province.
Lento said the board simply can’t amend a budget that was set in stone seven months ago, and even if they could, he doesn’t know where they’d find the savings. They will begin serious negotiations on their next budget in February of this year.
“It’s like asking our Parent Advisory Council to do pizza and hotdog fundraisers to fund our support staff,” he said.
Lento explained that support staff is the entire staff beyond administration: teachers under the B.C. Teacher’s Federation (BCTF) and CUPE staff.
“We’ve been cut to the bone for the past decade looking for funds,” he said.
But the response from school districts across the province has been overwhelming, and Lento is encouraged by the level of support for pushing back.
“It was frustrating to a point, but it was heartwarming to see the entire province react in the same manner,” he said.
B.C. School Trustees Association (BCSTA) president Michael McEvoy sent a strongly worded letter to McRae expressing the concerns held by trustees across the province.
“The ministry failed to engage BCSTA and our member boards prior to taking this approach,” McEvoy wrote. “With a recently signed co-governance protocol agreement in place, we expect to be consulted about decisions that have significant ramifications.”
Lento said SD5 has had to tighten its belt every year as the cost of education rises, and there has been no increase in funding from the province to cover those costs.
“We had a very, very difficult time balancing the budget last year. We’ve been cutting expenses for years due to real-dollar funding reductions. Everything goes up: heat, light, vehicle fuel, and so on. But government has not increased school funding to match these increasing costs,” Lento said. “And now they are settling contracts with monopoly money. That’s not the way you run a business. It’s not the way you support a quality education system for our kids.”
McEvoy echoed that in his letter, and stressed that having to find three per cent savings will mean running a deficit in coming years.
“Boards of education have been cutting expenses for years due to real-dollar funding reductions; there are no operational savings left,” he wrote. “Many boards now face the prospect of significant deficits in the next fiscal year and any savings to be had in the next six months would sensibly be used to offset those impending deficits.”
Lento does not deny that the hard working staff at SD5 are deserving of wage increases, but the money just simply isn’t available.
“We support fair wage increases for all staff but to ask us now to go back to last year’s budget and fiddle with our books is beyond belief,” he said.
Lento believes the ministry needs to find the money elsewhere.
“If they really want funds, we’ll pay them in Chamber of Commerce dollars,” he said.
McEvoy said savings cannot be found within existing school board budgets without impacting the education of students.
“The simple truth is that any further ‘savings’ will cause additional negative impact on direct service to students and facilities,” he said. “Moreover, I note that previous provincially negotiated contracts have been supported by budget increases from the ministry, not paid directly from existing budgets that are already strained.”
McEvoy finished his letter by saying the deadline does not allow school boards enough time to look at their existing budgets and attempt to find the three per cent.
“I would observe that the timeline outlined with respect to responding to the ministry’s letter does not respect a process of due diligence required for such a request.”