Vancouver School Board chair Mike Lombardi is trying to stay optimistic. But faced with cutting $27.26 million from the board's projected $504.62-million budget, he's "sickened" at the thought of implementing the cuts district staff have recommended for 2016/17 school year.
Even with cuts in 13 of the last 14 Vancouver district budgets, since over $300 million was cut from public education in 2002, Lombardi said proposals released by staff yesterday are the harshest he's seen yet. Over half -- $16 million -- of the cuts will directly impact classrooms, he said.
"They're devastating, they're nothing compared to what we had last year," Lombardi said. "One of my biggest concerns, in addition to losing the direct support services for kids, is the impact it's going to have on the morale of teachers, administrators, and support workers."
While some recommendations, like cutting the elementary band and strings program and charging for staff parking, have returned from previous budget balancing efforts, the recommendation to cut almost 200 full-time positions, including teachers, support and maintenance workers, administrators, and district staff, is new.
Education Minister Mike Bernier is not moved by the district's reaction to the suggested cuts. In an emailed statement, Bernier said last year's government-ordered audit of the district by Ernst & Young called the practice of releasing preliminary budget numbers misleading.
"Since 2009/10 the VSB has predicted deficits -- yet in the same time period has ended up growing its surplus by almost $17 million," his statement read.
"In the face of record funding from the province, VSB's failure to deal with under-capacity schools over the years means taxpayers are paying an extra $37 million a year funding empty seats instead of education. The VSB also received an extra $2 million this year in 'funding protection' to help them deal with declining enrolment."
Shaken to the core
But the district maintains its $24 million surplus isn't as large as it sounds. Staff recommends using $13.1 million of it to balance the 2016/17 budget, while $3.5 million is restricted to funding particular programs, and the remaining $7.4 million is for offsetting another funding shortfall in 2017/18.
Other savings from staff strikes, unspent funds from staff salary increase projections or underspent program budgets were all used up to balance the previous five budgets, VSB staff told The Tyee.
Holdback funds from the Ministry of Education have helped reduce past projected deficits. But there were no holdback funds this year because of an unexpected enrolment increase province wide in 2015/16, Lombardi said.
Vancouver is also required to cut $2.74 million to help meet the ministry's province-wide $25 million reduction in school districts' administrative costs. The province also downloaded close to $1 million in operations costs to the VSB for the Next Generation Network, which provided Wi-Fi in all Vancouver schools, and the government is cutting $2.15 million in VSB grants.
Funding per pupil increased $8 this year to $7,166 per student, but the district is projecting a lower enrolment for 2016/17. If cuts to teachers go ahead, secondary school class sizes will exceed the 30-student cap, and there will be less support for students with struggling with literacy, English Language Learning, and special needs.
"This is going to shake schools to the core in terms of the programs and services they deliver," Lombardi said. "Just imagine: we have our inner city schools where we have our most vulnerable kids, and we're eliminating 12 literacy teachers who are helping those kids get a head start. That's the kind of thing that's not good for education."
Fight the cuts
At the moment the cuts are just suggestions. After meeting with parents, teachers, students, and administrators Thursday night and again on April 11 to get their feedback and submissions for the final budget, the school board will hold three public feedback sessions before the final budget vote on April 28.
Given the high attendance in previous years when programs like the elementary band and strings were on the chopping block, Lombardi is expecting large turnouts.
"Once people start to grasp what's in here," Lombardi said, referring to the recommended cuts, "I'm predicting thousands of people at our meetings."
Lombardi, a member of the Vision Vancouver caucus who has butted heads with the ministry repeatedly over education funding shortfalls since the party first joined the school board in 2008, is calling for both board and stakeholder advocacy to fight the cuts.
Pointing to Ontario, which recently announced a $300-million investment in public education -- close to what's required to bring the province back to 2002 funding levels -- Lombardi asked how British Columbia had the second lowest per pupil finding and the worst teacher-to-student ratio in Canada, when it's the only province with a surplus budget.
"You know what's really coincidental? That's the exact amount of money which goes from public funding into private schools," he said, referring to the $300-million Ontario funding boost. "It's been a long-standing position of the Vancouver School Board and the BC School Trustees Association that public funds should not be used for private education."