Opinion

Who Wins as Endless Shortfalls Destroy Public Education?

Why the same budget dramas play out BC-wide each spring.

By Crawford Kilian 2 May 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Tyee contributing editor Crawford Kilian is a retired college instructor and former school trustee.

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Forced cuts, yet again: Nearly half of BC's 60 school districts, stuck with too little funding from Victoria, are looking at a combined shortfall of over $77 million. Photo: Neil Jennings, Creative Commons licensed.

It's a cruel rite of spring in British Columbia. School boards are told by government what money they will get for the coming year, and by their own figuring, it's not enough.

The trustees must then decide whom to sacrifice: perhaps teachers, by closing programs; perhaps a community, by closing its school.

Or perhaps themselves, if they refuse to sacrifice anyone else.

Those stakes were made clear over 30 years ago when Vancouver's school board was fired for submitting a "needs budget" instead of one meeting the desires of the Socred government of the day. It was just the first example of the old Chinese saying, "Kill the chicken to scare the monkeys." Most school boards since then have dutifully shut schools, laid off teachers, and killed programs when Victoria decreed it.

This spring is no exception. Parents' group Families Against Cuts to Education estimates that at least 27 of B.C.'s 60 school districts are looking at a combined shortfall of over $77 million. Vancouver alone is dealing with $24 million of that shortfall (and has just voted 5-4 to reject that budget). Victoria needs to cut $6.9 million.

One of the smaller Interior districts, North Okanagan-Shuswap, shows how such shortfalls can inflict long-term damage -- damage that will affect the education of children not yet born.

North Okanagan-Shuswap, School District No. 83, is looking at a shortfall of just $1.9 million. In many ways, it's a typical B.C. district, sprawled across a vast area comprising several small cities and towns and some First Nations reserves all with a dwindling student population. As of January 2016, SD83 served just 5,743 kids.

'Dirty work' and a board ripped apart

For seven years, SD83 has been receiving "Funding Protection." Provincial funding is normally on a per-pupil basis, but when enrolment drops by a certain percentage from one year to the next, Funding Protection money kicks in to soften the blow. Board chair Bobbi Johnson told The Tyee that the district has lost "more than 25 per cent [of enrolment] over the last 10 years." Given present numbers, however, if 38 more kids turn up next September, Funding Protection will end.

Funding Protection is intended to protect programs and schools whose enrolments would otherwise lose funding altogether. SD83 managed to run a surplus for the last few years, so the money instead was shifted to the district's capital budget.

Much of the money was then allocated to the construction of a new District Resource Centre, housing not only administrative staff but "itinerant" specialists like speech pathologists and counsellors. As Bobbi Johnson told The Tyee, "The new building is not only much more economical to operate than the old building, but there have also been some benefits to collaboration by having so many people under one roof."

But when parents learned the money hadn't gone to preserve programs and keep schools open, they were furious. So were the teachers. On April 19, Brenda O'Dell, president of the North Okanagan-Shuswap Teachers' Association, spoke at a budget consultation meeting:

"For over a decade, the Liberal government has made financial decisions and asked Boards of Education to do their dirty work of slashing programs and services that assist students in classrooms and increase the complexity of working conditions for teachers.

"That being said, this Board has been making decisions which have not been transparent and open and are, quite frankly, very difficult to understand given that they say their decisions are all about children."

O'Dell then recommended several steps keep money in the district's operational budget but said she herself was officially withdrawing from the budget-consultation process. "I can't take part in a process I don't believe in," she told The Tyee in a telephone interview.

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Before the blow-up: North Okanagan School District 83 board of trustees included, (clockwise from upper left): Barry Chafe, Chris Coers, Vice-chair Michael Saab, Chair Bobbi Johnson, Bob Fowler, Debbie Evans, Jenn Wilchuk, Kelly Rowe, Larissa Lutjen.

In addition, three of the board's nine trustees announced their resignations; they too were unhappy with the process and the awkward position it had put them in. One, Jenn Wilchuk, explained in a statement that "We have failed our responsibilities through lack of due diligence and in my case, a resignation is the best way to accept accountability and apologize."

Another trustee, Kelly Rowe, told The Tyee that she had seen the budget shrink progressively over her year and a half on the board. She said she didn't know specifically how the budget surpluses had been achieved over recent years, but said the decision to build the new District Education Centre had been taken in 2011 with funding to come from sale of school properties. However, board chair Johnson said, "A few of the properties were sold but not as many as hoped."

The three trustees will remain on the board until a June 25 by-election. Meanwhile, the board has asked Education Minister Mike Bernier for a special adviser to visit the district and recommend how trustees could work more effectively in future. The adviser's report (which the board will have to pay for) will be submitted on May 20.

In the interim, North Okanagan-Shuswap trustees have shown interest in a possible budget alternative that would add almost $700,000 to the operating budget while reducing the capital budget transfer by half to $500,000. They are likely to vote on the formal budget proposal on May 10.

Blows to public education support

The district may have won itself yet another reprieve, but at a high price: alienated teachers, unhappy parents, and a divided board. In this, North Okanagan-Shuswap is all too typical. Scores of B.C. school districts are trapped in a demographic trough: industries are shutting down, families are moving to bigger towns (or their kids are), and enrolments are dwindling. Teachers, trustees, and parents all want the best schools possible, while Victoria hands out too little to pay for them.

Then, as Brenda O'Dell observed, the boards must do the government's dirty work of cutting programs, laying off teachers, and closing schools. This leads to predictable anger and local quarrels, damaging the social capital that small communities must have. Parents, unhappy with the acrimony, turn to independent schools or home schooling, further reducing not only the public system's student population but also its parental support base. Fewer people will run for school boards, fewer teachers will seek small town careers, and once thriving communities will shrink still more.

Since the BC Liberals were elected in 2001, this process has worked from the top down: the government picks fights with teachers and bullies boards, consistently underfunds districts (including the few like Surrey that keep explosively growing), and then sits back to watch as trustees, teachers, and parents fight over the scraps they've been tossed.

If you stopped to think about it, you'd almost think it was policy.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, BC Politics

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