School District given reprieve from budget cut

Minister of Education respond to outrage over Cooperative Gains Mandate

School boards will not be required to find 1.5 per cent savings in their 2012 budgets to fund salary increases for support staff.

The news came in a letter to all B.C. school district board chairs from Education Minister Don McRae on January 23, 2013.

“You have indicated to me quite clearly that in light of budget uncertainties and the timing of district budget processes that savings cannot be generated without either reducing service levels or transferring costs to the public,” Minister McRae wrote in the letter, adding that the boards’ unwillingness to cut their budgets will be relayed to the Minister of Finance and the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association.

“I expect that the Minister will direct that any improvements to support staff wages and benefits be achieved through offsetting savings found within the collective agreement. There must not be any incremental cost to boards or the province as a result of collective agreements,” wrote McRae.

School District 5 board chair Frank Lento called McRae’s letter a reversal following the unanimous rejection of the government’s directive by school boards across the province.

“I don’t think they had a choice. I think it was overwhelming. I think every district in the province wrote letters similar to what we did,” said Lento.

The local school board spoke out last month against the Ministry of Education’s directive to all B.C. boards that they revisit their 2012 budget and find a 1.5 per cent savings to cover salary increases for support staff – all school district staff outside administration.

The directive was sent in a December letter from Minister McRae. It stated that under the Cooperative Gains Mandate, public sector employers were able to negotiate modest wage increases so long as the savings could be found within the existing budget.

But the Southeast Kootenay school board completed its budget in June 2012, and began negotiations this month for its 2013 budget.

“It’s like asking our Parent Advisory Council to do pizza and hotdog fundraisers to fund our support staff,” Lento said at the time.

The Ministry’s decision to look elsewhere for the 1.5 per cent savings is a relief, Lento said in an interview this week, but he remains baffled by the original directive.

“I think the Minister has recognized somewhat belatedly that the government’s struggles with financial management shouldn’t fall on the backs of our students,” said Lento. “Indeed, the way to deal with our fiscal challenges should be through investing even more in the education of our children so that each has the tools to succeed in the future economy.”

Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett said he is disappointed by School District 5’s statement.

“Asking school boards to find 1.5 per cent savings in their large budgets is not putting anything on the backs of students. It is asking an elected, accountable board to apply its collective mind to whether there are better ways to do things, something individual British Columbians and businesses, and the provincial government, must do on a daily basis,” Bennett told the Townsman this week.

Rejecting the Minister’s directive is placing pressure on taxpayers, Bennett went on.

“It is the easiest thing in the world to say is that government should spend more money and find someplace else to control spending. The government is the sum of all taxpayers and the board has essentially thumbed its nose at those taxpayers,” he said.

“Unfortunately, with the boards’ decision, negotiations with school support staff will contain no opportunity for workers to find savings in budgets and build wage or benefit increases on the basis of those savings,” he said.

Minister McRae has “graciously accepted” the boards’ decision, Bennett continued.

“To characterize the Minister’s empathic approach to this difficult challenge as reversing himself, is unnecessary and disrespectful,” he said.

But Frank Lento said the boards’ decision was simply about encouraging education.

“Education is an investment to be maximized, not a cost to be controlled by a government,” he said.

With files from Annalee Grant