Keeping school breakfast and lunch programs going in Surrey is literally a numbers game. To help cover its costs, the province's most populous school district runs a monthly in-house lottery.
Teachers and other school staff buy lottery numbers by payroll deduction. When the winning number is picked, half the money raised "goes to support food programs in schools, and 50 per cent goes to the holder of the ticket," Surrey district chair Shawn Wilson explained. "We've collected over a quarter-million dollars since we've been doing that for the last 10 years."
In effect, Surrey district employees are buying lunch and breakfast for their students. Their response underscores criticism of the provincial program meant to cover such add-ons to core curriculum education. That program, called CommunityLINK (for "Learning Includes Nutrition and Knowledge"), was first set up 20 years ago under the then-newly created Ministry of Children and Family Development to fund school meals.
Its scope has expanded a lot. The Ministry of Education took over CommunityLINK in 2004, folding district meal programs, inner city school supports, child and youth workers and healthy schools programs into the same funding envelope. It now supports after-school activities, counsellors, youth support workers, literacy programs and even administrators to support "vulnerable" students -- considered to be those who are low-income, in government care, English Language Learners, or struggling with learning disabilities or behavioural problems.
Districts have changed over the last 20 years too, along with their share of populations at risk. Surrey now has the province's highest refugee population. Coquitlam has the second highest, and joins Surrey in being one of the few growing school districts in B.C. Vancouver replaced an "inner city" program with one that acknowledges that student poverty and hunger are district-wide.
Yet CommunityLINK's funding formula hasn't changed in 12 years. Money is allocated based on the funding levels districts received prior to 2003/04 when the Ministry of Education took the program over, as well as an assessment of each district's socio-economic factors: things like poverty, crime, Indigenous people and kids in care.
The more risk factors, the more a district is supposed to receive for additional supportive programming.
Murky formula, stagnant pot
But the total purse it doles out has barely budged since CommunityLINK was established two decades ago. It began with $41.9 million to distribute in 1996, equivalent to $60.4 million in 2016 dollars. Instead of that, this year's allocation for the school program is $51.7 million.
The government acted to close the gap in 2012 with an additional $11.29 million in the form of the Vulnerable Student Supplement. It was distributed among 25 districts based on factors like existing and projected enrolment and social risk factors. Surrey and Coquitlam were among the districts that got extra funding, which haven't changed since.
Then, in the most recent provincial budget, the education ministry demanded that B.C.'s 60 school districts collectively cut $54 million from their 2015-17 spending plans.
The growing shortfall between funding and program costs is forcing districts to turn to such unorthodox approaches as Surrey's in-house lottery to keep offering services to vulnerable students.
"The people who are working on the front lines with students are struggling to scramble together resources where we can," said Charley King, president of the Coquitlam Teachers Association. Sometimes that includes resources in the community, but frequently, King added, school employees themselves are the only resource left.
And the complex formulas leave many districts grumbling about what they see as unfair distribution of the limited funding that is available.
Despite being included in the distribution of extra Vulnerable Student Supplement money to the tune of $2.5 million, Coquitlam's board chair, Judy Shirra, spoke out last October to complain that her district was being "short-changed" under the CommunityLINK formula, receiving less money than next-door New Westminster, for example, while having more than four times as many students. (The board declined The Tyee's interview request.)
That same month the Coquitlam teachers' union joined the board, parent advisory council, CUPE local and administrators' association, in sending a letter to the B.C. Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services asking for higher per-student funding and an increase in overall CommunityLINK funding in 2016. Neither issue was addressed in last month's provincial budget.
"The best I can assume," said Coquitlam Teacher Association president King, "is that whatever funding formula they have in their mind, is to serve a political purpose."
Education Minister Mike Bernier was not available for an interview. But a ministry spokesperson defended the CommunityLINK funding formula as having been originally developed with help from "an advisory committee of stakeholders."
The ministry calls it "inaccurate" to judge the program's funding on a per-student-head basis, arguing that it is meant to be targeted to vulnerable populations. School districts counter that the funding supports services beyond that group.
For example, Coquitlam used its CommunityLINK and Vulnerable Student Supplement last year to cover a healthy living co-ordinator and vice-principal at an alternative school, in addition to five Aboriginal education counsellors, two CommunityLINK co-ordinators, and more than a dozen youth workers.
How to calculate the program's funding fairly has preoccupied school districts for years. "I have been working with the government on that file since I was elected in 1998," said Surrey district chair Wilson.
In 2011, when The Tyee first wrote about this issue, the Surrey district calculated its CommunityLINK funding at $58 per student, compared to Greater Victoria, which was receiving nearly four times as much, at $195 per student.
The next year Surrey got "the lion's share" of the Vulnerable Student top-up, bringing its total funding to $101.09 per student -- still just a little over half what Victoria's students get. Vancouver, which has 20,000 fewer students, also receives about $60 more per student than Surrey.
"It stands to reason," Wilson argues, "that your vulnerable students, your total number, is going to be higher in Surrey."
Calling supports for vulnerable students a "patchwork of funding," NDP education critic Rob Fleming said it's symptomatic of how the B.C. education system as a whole is run.
"We had a $230 million tax cut for millionaires in B.C. in [the 2016] budget and a $54 million cut to school districts for their so-called administrative spending," he said, leaving the education budget lagging inflation. "There is no more room to cut in B.C. school district budgets, plain and simple."
But with the provincial budget now in place, school districts may have little choice but to dig deeper into their own employees' pocketbooks if they want to continue supporting their most vulnerable students.