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Victoria School Kids Get $200, Surrey's Only $58

BC's largest school district receives some of the lowest funding for its vulnerable children, and Surrey wants a fair deal.

By Katie Hyslop 11 Jan 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop reports on education for the Tyee Solutions Society, and is a freelance reporter for a number of other outlets including The Tyee. To republish this piece, please contact the Michelle Hoar.

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Fix Community LINK grant, says Anita Huberman, CEO of Surrey Board of Trade.

Surrey is the largest school district in the province, with over 65,000 students, and as the city grows by about 800 people per month, the district continues to be one of the few in the province that is still growing, too.

Yet when it comes to funding for its most vulnerable children, the Surrey School Board receives some of the lowest funding out of all the districts.

The Community LINK (Learning Includes Nutrition and Knowledge) grant offered by the ministry of education provides funding based on the number of vulnerable students in the district, providing money for breakfast and lunch programs, counseling and early childhood literacy programs, to name a few.

From 2007-2008 to 2009-2010, Langley received approximately $104.93 annually per student in Community LINK funding; Vancouver received $159.20, and Victoria got $200.57. Surrey received only $58.47 per student -- a little over one-quarter of what Victoria received, despite having over three times as many students.

The Greater Victoria School District argues there are difficulties in comparing funding between the two districts, saying the number of vulnerable students differs from community to community.

"It's really difficult, I think, to compare districts, because each district has different areas of vulnerability in their community, and the vulnerability numbers differ widely from community to community," says Deb Courville, associate superintendent of the Victoria district.

But the Surrey School Board says its city is a primary community for government-sponsored refugee claimants, which often fall into the vulnerable category based on employment and English as a second language difficulties. They also presented the provincial government with data comparing the LINK funding for Surrey and various other districts several times, and each time the government has agreed there is something wrong with the funding formula.

"This has been an issue for Surrey for about a decade. And we have been lobbying strenuously for the last half dozen years to get it corrected," says Laurae McNally, chair of the Surrey School Board.

"The last few years we really ramped up our lobbying on it, because kids don't get a second chance. If you're a needy child, you need help today, not 10 years from now when some government decides to correct the formula."

'Revolving door of ministers'

The board has met with several ministers over the issue as the responsibility for the grant has been passed around from the ministry of education to the ministry of children and family development to the ministry of housing, and back again to the ministry of education. McNally says they all agreed the funding formula was unfair and promised to change it. So far no one has.

"Then of course we've had a bit of a revolving door of [education] ministers, and you have to start over every time you get a new minister, and here we are. But in the meantime, kids need help," she told The Tyee.

Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid says she discussed the issue with the Surrey Board shortly after she was first appointed minister in June 2009. Part of the reason the funding is so unfair, according to MacDiarmid, is because there is no specific funding formula for the grant.

"It started out, I think, some of the districts actually didn't receive any Community LINK funding because the way that it came to them was based on whether they applied for it or not. It's only been more recently that all of the districts have received funding," she told The Tyee.

"What happened was districts either did or didn't apply and they started to get funding, and that funding was continued and then more funding was added. So that's one of the reasons why some of the districts have more funding than others, it's based on the history of their application."

Report slow in coming

A Community LINK advisory group has been formed, but the process has been lengthy, MacDiarmid says, because they are currently looking to see if there is overlap in what the grant funds with other ministries' grants.

"We've got a number of ministries that are involved in some of the same programs that are in Community LINK, and what we're trying to do is look across all of our ministries and see if we can rationalize what we are doing," she says.

"So whether it's a meal program or a counseling program, if there's stuff that's duplicated, say between health, between education, between MCFD, that we look across at all of those programs and see if there's a way that we could do it -- not necessarily pulling it out of any one ministry, but trying to absolutely minimize the duplication, especially when it comes to administration."

MacDiarmid is expecting a report from the group in the near future, but the process has taken too long for Surrey's liking, and they are not the only ones who are upset. The Surrey Board of Trade (SBoT) has joined the cause, lobbying the government for the past five years to increase education funding for both K-12 and post-secondary institutions in the city.

Last October the SBoT released "Education Today, Productivity Tomorrow," a position paper on business and education, not only to lobby the government, but to encourage other members of the city's business community to speak up about education funding, including the Community LINK grant.

'It's important to business': Board of Trade CEO

"We're wanting business owners, and their staff, to also tell the government more focus needs to be put from a funding perspective to Surrey when it comes to education, because it's important to business and it's important to the economy," says Anita Huberman, CEO of the SBoT.

Huberman says some businesses have lent their support, but the holidays and the BC Liberal leadership race have derailed their efforts. The SBoT plans to meet with the government in the spring, however, as well as re-launch their campaign to encourage businesses to speak out.

"Education's important, because first of all it gives us as people the skills that we need to be productive in society: the levels of reading, the levels of doing math, the support that people need to have the career, to have the skills that they need in business all start in the K-12 sector," she told The Tyee.

"If we're not well educated, if we don't have that support mechanism when we begin life, in kindergarten, even, that will compromise the economy of Canada, I feel."

Story updated at 4:55 p.m on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011.  [Tyee]

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