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VSB responds to MacDiarmid's directive

The Vancouver School Board on Thursday evening responded to the directive of Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid. And a Vancouver teachers' representative said MacDiarmid was "concerned" about problems with Vancouver's class-size and class-composition problems.

On the VSB website, the board announced that "Vancouver school trustees will comply with the Ministry direction requiring the board to submit a balanced budget to the Minister of Education on or before June 18, and prior to approving the 2010-11 preliminary operating budget."

The announcement also included two letters to the minister, sent late today. The first letter deals with the Special Advisor, Comptroller General Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland. It says, in part:

Trustees remain disappointed the Special Advisor's report does not resolve the core challenge facing Vancouver and other school boards across British Columbia: How to avert cuts detrimental to student learning in the face of a growing gap between provincial funding and board responsibilities to deliver education.

We were hopeful the Special Advisor could identify areas of savings or revenue opportunities to help manage the school district's $17-million shortfall. The report offers suggestions for potential savings, and notes several are already underway under the leadership of our board, but provides little in the way of immediate relief for the district.

Many of the reductions and revenue opportunities proposed will take longer than one year to realize, leaving trustees in the same difficult position that we've been in since the Special Advisor's appointment.

The second letter is a response to the minister's directive:

Thank you for your letter today regarding the Vancouver School Board's preliminary response to the Comptroller General's report. As you know, our response noted many of the recommendations are either current practice, already considered in the balanced preliminary budget proposal (that I sent to you after it was released and posted to our website in April), or inappropriate practice for elected officials.

We noted that we would give further consideration to some, while others were based on inaccurate information. Several recommendations, as we've noted in our response, were already well underway prior to the Comptroller General's review.

I am pleased to hear your recognition of our excellent management staff. With their advice we are proud of this board and previous board's financial oversight, although without stable predictable funding and policy direction from the province, this is always challenging. Boards must anticipate, apparently, that your government will negotiate, and not fully fund, cost increases and make new financial demands on boards and suddenly cancel funding grants mid year (ie: AFG) and direct boards to implement new programs without the necessary funding to do so.

In light of the instability coming from your Ministry, our balanced budqet, positive student incomes and strong cash position demonstrate that it is not this board that has difficulty managing its finances.

Shortly after the minister's press conference this afternoon, The Tyee talked with Chris Harris, president of the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers' Association. Harris had tried to attend the press conference but had been kept outside. However, MacDiarmid had agreed to meet with him after.

"I talked to her about the situation in our schools," Harris said. "We're seeing more class-size and class-composition issues than ever before. She said she was 'concerned about that.'"

"I also said I was confused about the Special Adviser's complaints about governance issues," Harris said. He added that while stakeholders are consulted by the board, "I've never had a vote. That's a misunderstanding by the Comptroller General."

When he complained about chronic underfunding, he said MacDiarmid asked if the board might be spending money in the wrong places.

"Then look at the funding of the whole system, not just the VSB," Harris says he replied. He said MacDiarmid told him "They are looking at the whole funding of the system."

"We agreed that our public schools are good," Harris told The Tyee. "She praised teachers. But I said that she hadn't said anything to mitigate the layoff notices sent to 341 Vancouver teachers."

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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