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Education stakeholders unite against school cuts

In an “unprecedented letter,” four major stakeholder groups have united to demand that Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid restore funding cuts to the system.

Sent on October 6, the letter was signed by Anne Whiteaker, president of the Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils; Connie Denesiuk, president of the B.C. School Trustees Association; Irene Lanzinger, president of the B.C. Teachers Federation; and Barry O’Neill, president of CUPE B.C.

They cited “shared concerns about the cutbacks to programs and grants that are now being felt by students in classrooms across the province.”

The leaders named several provincially created problems:

...unfunded cost pressures such as salary and Medical Service Plan increases, as well as costs associated with rising B.C. Hydro rates, H1N1 prevention, gas prices, the Harmonized Sales Tax, and carbon neutrality mean less district funding is available to directly support students.

Additionally, the cancellation of the $110 million Annual Facilities Grant part way through the year has caused significant disruption. ... While some boards were able to divert funds earmarked for other projects to pay for the repairs, others were left with significant deficits, and many supported and trades positions have been eliminated.

We are also very concerned that there are no indications in the budget documents released on September 1, 2009, that the Annual Facilities Grant will be restored.

Other funding issues mentioned included transferring CommunityLINK funding for vulnerable students from core services to “the less reliable gaming grants program,” and forcing school sports programs and Parent Advisory Councils to be reduced or cancelled altogether.

The result of the above funding decisions will likely result in long-term instability, larger class sizes, and reduced services for students including those with special needs. School sporting events will be at risk, and Parent Advisory Councils will have to reduce support for student supplies, field trips, computers, and library books.

Schools in poorer communities will be hardest hit by these cuts. Districts will be forced to reduce staffing and student support services, including teachers, special education assistants, and counsellors.

Just a month into the school year, the impact of cuts has already been felt. In Surrey, Johnston Heights Secondary had received $3.5 million from Victoria to repair a roof that had been leaking for years. According to a news report, Surrey spent $300,000 in preliminary work, including bringing portables onto the site to house students during repairs. The government then cancelled the funding. The portables were removed and students are back in the leaky building.

In addition, Surrey school board last month moved $6.1 million out of its Capital Reserve fund to pay for repairs that the Annual Facilities Grant was supposed to cover.

In New Westminster, a recent news story described how an elementary school without a custodian had to wait hours to clean up vomit and feces in a boys’ bathroom. The bathroom was closed in the meantime, but feces were reportedly tracked through the school and other facilities were overcrowded.

Bill Pegler, K-12 coordinator for CUPE B.C., told The Tyee that New Westminster Secondary is also facing problems: “We’ve got waterpipes with pinholes, peeling paint, and a jury-rigged heating system.”

Pegler said tradespersons are being let go from school districts across the province: Seven from Okanagan-Skaha (Penticton), while Kootenay Lake will see a 10 percent reduction in custodians.

In Richmond, another news report said local parent advisory councils are “gearing up for a scrap with the provincial government” over the loss of $200,000 in funding from gaming grants -- a cut of 50 percent. The money would have paid for sports and playground equipment, field trips and library books.

In an interview with The Tyee, BCSTA president Connie Denesiuk said that the seriousness of the cutbacks made a joint appeal seem necessary. She said the groups had not yet heard a response from the education minister.

“There is significant concern,” Denesiuk said, “that if we don’t take care of what we have in our province, we’ll lose it.”

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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