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BC school districts face closures and layoffs

B.C. school trustees and teachers across the province are beginning the new year with the prospect of widespread school closures and teacher layoffs.

On January 19, School District 57 in Prince George published a District Sustainability Committee Report.

It describes the financial problems the district faces, including the Harmonized Sales Tax, MSP and teachers' pension premium increases, and other growing expenses. All told, the report said, $7 million would have to be cut from the 2010-11 budget: "This would leave, approximately, a further $4 million of structural deficit to be eliminated in the 2011-12 to 2014-15 school years."

The committee estimated that $3 million could be saved by closing 14 schools. "If structural savings from school closures and class size adjustments total $5 million," it said, "then it follows that the savings needed from reductions in district infrastructure would be $2 million. If the total of $5 million is not met through school closures and class size adjustments, then the target from infrastructure reduction would need to be adjusted to a higher level."

Also on January 19, the Vancouver School Board sent letters to 800 teachers, advising them of possible layoffs.

In a news release, the VSB said:

Notices of potential layoffs are being given to all teachers with seniority levels of approximately five or fewer years of service. The letter has been jointly signed by the school district and presidents of the district’s two teachers' associations – Vancouver Elementary Teachers Association and Vancouver Secondary Teachers Association.

Vancouver School Board finance staff is currently forecasting an operating budget shortfall of $17.5 to $36.3 million for 2010-11, depending on provincial government funding decisions.

"The district has increased costs coming due to decisions made at the provincial level," says Vancouver Board Chair Patti Bacchus. "We believe the provincial government has an obligation to fund those costs to ensure we are able to provide adequate staffing and resource levels to meet the needs of our students. We've already had to cut over $47 million in accumulated annual spending since the beginning of 2002/03 and further reductions will make it increasingly difficult to meet the learning needs of our students."

North Vancouver's School District 44, meanwhile, announced it is moving to "open consultation around potential school and program restructuring, consolidation and closures":

1. Potential consolidation and closure of a limited number of elementary schools including Blueridge, Seymour Heights, Plymouth, and Fromme Elementary Schools.

2. Potential consolidation of alternate programs to accommodate the diverse needs of our students through reconfiguration, relocation, or potential closure of alternate programs (Keith Lynn Alternate Secondary School, Youth Learning Centre, Therapeutic Day Program, 3rd Step and Windsor House).

3. Preliminary research into the potential restructuring of elementary French Immersion including the possibility of a single-stream (French-only) elementary school or schools.

Two days after these announcements, the B.C. Teachers' Federation charged that Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid is "in denial about education cuts":

As news comes in from around the province about potential teacher layoffs, school closures, and dramatic budget shortfalls, Minister of Education Margaret MacDiarmid is in denial about her government’s role in these devastating cuts, BCTF President Irene Lanzinger said today.

“From the Lower Mainland and the Island to the North and Interior, school districts are speaking out about devastating cuts they will have to make because of government cutbacks and underfunding,” said Lanzinger. “Instead of taking the warnings seriously, the minister has been busy denying the problem, making up excuses, and blaming school districts.”

... “The minister of education likes to talk about record levels of funding, but she never talks about the record levels of downloading her government forces onto school boards,” said Lanzinger. “The minister of education also tries to make excuses by blaming declining enrolment. The problem with the minister’s excuse is that BC’s school enrolment has already started to stabilize.”

This year enrolment declined by 3,500 students spread across 2,000 schools in a province with several hundred thousand students. The decline represents less than one percent with several districts actually recording increasing enrolments.

As of January 22, the Ministry of Education website had no comment on possible school closures or teacher layoffs.

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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