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Municipal Politics

The Vancouver School Board Budget Vote That Wasn’t

The delay comes after recent budget-related protests and a struggle to address deficits.

Katie Hyslop 3 May 2023The Tyee

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach them by email.

Despite Vancouver school district staff presenting a balanced budget on Monday night, the Vancouver School Board could not agree to pass it.

Instead the board has delayed the budget bylaw’s final reading — and their vote on passing or rejecting the $736-million budget for the 2023-24 school year — until May 10.

Previous drafts of the budget had deficits as high as nearly $6 million. They were reduced through an increase in the projected domestic and international student enrolment.

The board is required by law to present a balanced budget to the Education Ministry by June 30.

The last board that failed to present a budget within the legislated time frame was fired by the ministry in 2016.

The delay also comes after recent protests against school closures that some fear could be announced at any time — though the VSB has assured it has no plans to close schools or school annexes in order to balance this year’s budget.

On Monday, trustees Suzie Mah and Jennifer Reddy voted against the bylaw readings, which must be read three times before a vote on the budget itself.

Because the last reading was not passed unanimously, the budget vote could not take place Monday night.

“I have found it difficult to receive information in a timely manner,” Reddy said on why she could not move the budget process forward.

Mah said as a first-time trustee elected in October, she found the budget hard to read. She put forward a motion to delay the budget vote until May 29.

“I feel that I haven’t had enough time, and if I had, I have a feeling I would have come forward with more motions to address student needs in this district,” she said.

But board member Alfred Chien, also a new trustee, disagreed the budget was difficult to read. He successfully amended Mah’s motion to move the public meeting to May 10. The motion passed with only Mah and Reddy opposed.

Mah and Reddy were not the only ones who found the budget process too complex and difficult to follow.

Vancouver Elementary and Adult Educators’ Society president Jody Polukoshko has been involved with several VSB budgets, as well as with the provincial BC Teachers’ Federation and her own union local’s budgets.

But even she had trouble deciphering the district’s budget. When she asked earlier this year how the district was budgeting money it saved from not covering some teachers’ absences, district staff told Polukoshko that because her union is grieving this issue, they could not comment.

“I’m still really struggling to connect some of the dots,” Polukoshko said.

In an emailed statement to The Tyee, a Vancouver School Board spokesperson said there are no savings when a teacher’s absence is not covered because the teacher still receives their salary.

Polukoshko remains optimistic the additional time will improve the final budget.

“We’re hoping these nine days will give the board the chance to understand the budget, to understand the implications of the lack of transparency and some of the decisions that are being presented as status quo or benign, and what ought to be done to improve service to students.”

In an emailed response to The Tyee, a VSB spokesperson said the district’s budget conformed to public accounting principles, and that staff provide detailed budget information to stakeholders like the Vancouver Elementary and Adult Educators’ Society at its finance committee meetings. Stakeholders also have the opportunity to ask district staff budget questions.

“While public sector budgets are complex, we also work to inform and engage the public in a variety of ways including our podcast, survey text/visuals etc. additionally, each year, two committee of the whole meetings are available for stakeholders and members of the public to share their input directly with the board,” the statement read, adding all public VSB meetings are livestreamed, with the recordings later available on YouTube.

Funding for ‘future great leader’ found

The proposed budget of $736 million is five per cent larger than the current school year budget, and includes $605 million in operating and $37.5 million in capital expenses.

Earlier in Monday’s meeting Reddy had proposed four budget amendments aimed at supporting vulnerable students:

Reddy’s amendments suggested funding these initiatives by cutting the district's international student recruitment agent and advertising fees, cutting consultants’ fees, using money from the province’s new school food program or using money from the district’s $22.4-million accumulated operating surplus.

The surplus is approximately $1 million below the lowest limit set by district surplus policy.

Each amendment failed to pass, with only Mah and Reddy voting in favour, and trustee Janet Fraser supporting the childcare fund.

Trustee Christopher Richardson said he was in favour of Reddy’s ideas, but could not support them knowing there were other underfunded areas in the district.

“To nickel and dime the budget that is now finally balanced, I think, would be inappropriate and wrong,” he said.

Questioning staff’s budget decisions is part of a trustee’s job, Polukoshko told The Tyee.

“Trustees are elected by the public, they’re accountable to the public,” she said.

Mah also brought an amendment Monday calling for an unknown amount of funding be found to ensure that when non-enrolling teachers — those without a regular classroom, like teacher librarians, special needs teachers and English Language Learning teachers — are absent, they are immediately covered by a substitute.

Currently, their absences are only filled on the third day. Yet non-enrolling teachers, who support some of the district’s most vulnerable students, are expected to fill in when other teachers are absent and there are no substitutes available.

Polukoshko estimates the cost of covering these absences to be around $1.75 million.

But Mah’s amendment also failed, with just Reddy, Mah and Richardson in favour.

Two amendments that did pass were trustee Alfred Chien’s proposed $100,000 increase in funding for student leadership projects and initiatives and trustee Lois Chan-Pedley’s proposed $100,000 increase to students' environmental sustainability projects and initiatives. Both would be funded by cutting unspecified consultants’ fees from the budget.

Both amendments passed, with only Richardson voting against them.

Trustees uncomfortable changing the budget for Reddy or Mah’s amendments spoke in favour of budget changes for Chien and Pedley-Chan’s amendments.

Trustee Josh Zhang spoke against adding more money for adult education by cutting parts of the international education recruitment budget, because it could undercut international tuition revenues the district relies on.

Zhang also stated the $13,449 budget reduction for school supplies was “presumably” because fewer supplies were needed, he said.

“I have confidence in staff that they have allocated their budget correctly and they assess the needs of the stakeholders for their various supplies.”

But Zhang was in favour of cutting $100,000 in consulting fees to increase support for student leadership programs.

“I’m very happy to support any type of excellence initiative for students of this district,” he said. “Maybe VSB can take credit for a great future leader.”

Student trustee Mia Liu also spoke in favour of the funding for student leadership, the parameters of which will be decided between district staff and the Vancouver District Students’ Council, of which Liu is a member.

“It very much aligns with what the students had to say,” Liu said, referring to a presentation students made to the board last month.

Some schools lack pencils, paint brushes and white boards

In a phone interview with The Tyee Tuesday morning, Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council member-at-large Ian Rowe and chair Kyenta Martins said the board passed budget amendments supporting students who are already succeeding, while defeating amendments that would have benefited more vulnerable students.

Rowe pointed to a $10,000 increase in the vandalism budget for 2023-24, despite this year’s budget being underspent.

“You’d think that $10,000 increase for vandalism could go to supplies,” Rowe said, adding some schools lack pencils, paint brushes and white boards, while other schools, like Britannia Secondary, can’t keep the school library open five days a week.

The VSB spokesperson told The Tyee via email that the vandalism budget is part of the district’s contractual obligation to the International Union of Operating Engineers local, which includes custodians, building engineers and cafeteria workers. The budget increased because of inflation on supplies costs.

The district faced criticism for its budget engagement process, specifically the online survey it asked parents to complete by March 3. In an open letter the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council accused the district of trying to influence parents to make particular decisions via leading survey questions.

Both Rowe and Martins said the current method of having the public present their budget opinions to the district at public delegation meetings just invites criticism, not collaboration. DPAC wants that to change.

Vancouver Secondary Teachers’ Association president Terry Stanway is hoping a delayed budget process will mean more details are coming as to what cuts the district’s alternate school programs can expect. These programs are designed to help more vulnerable students graduate high school.

Every year the district balances a budget deficit, Stanway said. Not always with large cuts like school closures, but through a series of smaller cuts and compromises in the district.

Over time these cuts, which Stanway credits to an overall underfunding of public education by the province, are adding up, he said. He wants the district to have a fuller budget process to understand the impact, starting the conversation much earlier than February.

“For us to cut anymore — and in some areas, honestly, for us to not find a way to increase expenses — we just can’t keep doing this,” he said.

* Story updated on May 3 and again on May 4 to include responses from the Vancouver School Board.  [Tyee]

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