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Educators react to BC minister's CBC interview

B.C Education Minister Peter Fassbender's appearance on CBC radio in Metro Vancouver this morning sparked differing opinions among educators about the cost of rising hydro rates to school districts.

Brought on to answer questions about districts' displeasure with hydro rate increases, Fassbender addressed comments he made to the Vancouver Courier last week that the Vancouver School Board should look at closing schools to help cover costs.

"I think it has to be seen in context," Fassbender told Early Edition host Rick Cluff.

"I have been travelling around the province visiting school boards and what I have seen is many boards who have taken a very pragmatic approach to rising costs and the challenges they have. Some have made hard decisions to close schools that were under capacity, that were draining their operating budget as well.

"My comments were not because of hydro rate increases, I'm not suggesting that at all, but as [Vancouver School Board Chair] Patti Bacchus knows…Vancouver School Board, like every other school board, needs to look at their entire financial plan and all of the infrastructure."

Last week BC Hydro announced fees would increase by 15.6 per cent over the next two years, rising to 28 per cent more than current fees by 2019. The Vancouver School Board expects to pay $450,000 for its hydro bill -- already $3 million per year -- by the 2015/16 school year.

Fassbender went on to say several districts in the province are reluctant to consider closing schools, but ministry offices have to tighten their belts to cover the cost of hydro increases, too.

"We have had to, as government, look at every single line item in our budgets, I'm asking school districts to do the same thing. And I know that there are efficiencies that can be found and other districts have found them," he said.

Bacchus, whose taped comments started the interview, replied on Twitter:

Bacchus also pointed to the government's own Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services report released last month that recommended government "provide sufficient funding for the K-12 system to enable B.C. students to become top performers nationally; and address cost increases for school districts (e.g. rising BC Hydro rates)."

The school board chair followed the release of the report with an open letter to Premier Christy Clark and her entire cabinet on Nov. 25, urging them to increase Kindergarten to Grade 12 funding and plan to fund future capital maintenance and seismic upgrading.

The hydro increase inspired the Kamloops-Thompson district trustees to send a letter to Fassbender, too, regarding the troubles they are facing covering the increases. Hydro rate increases are expected to cost the district $20,000 to $25,000 this school year, and anywhere from $92,000 to 100,000 next year.

For his part, the minister is sympathetic but says there is no more money.

"We would love to be able to invest more. Right now in our fiscal environment, we need to manage every single dollar so we can see the light at the end of the tunnel," he said on CBC.

"One of the best ways to deal with our fiscal challenges is to build our economy so we have the resources."

Kamloops-Thompson secretary treasurer Kelvin Stretch is surprised the media has paid so much attention to hydro rate increases when other increases, like Medical Services Plan rates that have also been increasing, are just as big or bigger for school districts.

Still he's sympathetic to the Education Ministry's financial quagmire.

"I think the government's just being prudent, which is how they were basically elected: they promised to balance the budget, which means they weren't going to spend more than they take in," he told The Tyee Solutions Society.

Last year Kamloops-Thompson received $1.6 million in holdback funds because of a higher than predicted student enrollment. It was the third year in a row the district received such funds and Stretch expects to find out next Friday whether they qualify again this year.

Kamloops-Thompson has closed 13 schools -- about 20 per cent -- in the last decade. Stretch says much of that was done for educational reasons -- amalgamating neighbouring schools with declining populations -- as for budgetary reasons.

"You're better off to have full classes than split classes. And the teachers say it's an easier class to teach, the kids are better off when they're all in one grade, there's lots of educational plusses that come with it. And certainly we save money, too," he said, adding enrolment has also fallen about 20 per cent since 1997.

Hydro increases aren't the only place districts are feeling the pinch. Cluff brought up the issue facing New Westminster Secondary School, whose operating budget was cut from $800,000 to $65,000 earlier this year and has now run out of money, asking Fassbender what advice he had for the district. The school district made the cuts because of a surprise $2.8-million deficit discovered last year.

"It's the same advice I'm giving to all school districts: you have to look at what you have, what your future plans are," he said.

When Cluff interjected to point out the small district had only one high school, Fassbender continued: "And that's one of the challenges that you have in communities when you have a declining population. …. But they have to work with neighbouring districts: I've seen school districts where students now are going to other districts because that’s now what makes financial sense."

But that doesn't mean Fassbender is advocating for bussing kids out of district, says New Westminster Board vice-chair Michael Ewen*.

"I think he's telling us to keep doing what we're doing," Ewan said, referring to partnerships New Westminster has with other districts, including an International Baccalaureate (IB) program the district started when Burnaby lost their IB program. Now Burnaby students attend IB classes in New Westminster.

"Nothing he said on (CBC radio) alarmed me or was out of place at all," he said, before adding he would also like to see education funding increased.

To listen to the full interview with Fassbender on CBC Radio's Early Edition click here.

*Changed 11:20 p.m. December 4, 2013 Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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