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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 6, April 2005

Will school boards be back in the red after the election?

by Noel Herron

Funding freeze looms after 2006

Only three small newspapers across the province zeroed in on the alarming likelihood that once the BC Liberals’ increased pre-election education funding grant was accounted for, that school boards would find themselves back in the red after the election.

School trustees, parents, and other education partners emerging from four years of damaging, cumulative cutbacks were so pleased that, their cash-strapped schools were about to begin a rebuilding process that most of them missed the looming funding freeze the BC Liberals had cleverly inserted into their three-year, projected plan.

But the proposed rebuilding of schools and, with it, the hope of sustained reinvesting with stable funding vanishes once the pre-election funding is spent, after 2006, as the appallingly inadequate $20 million for 60 school districts is divided up across the province.

And now that the initial euphoria is evaporating, B.C. secretary treasurers who have done the math are pointing with growing alarm to projected deficits for many, if not all, school boards in 2006–07 and 2007–08.

Thus, on examination, what we have in place, after the initial boost, is an ipso facto funding freeze for public schools in B.C. over the next few years. (See table.)

Using their massive public relations machine (30 press releases in education alone, not counting recycled announcements, since January), the BC Liberals are once more endeavouring to bamboozle a dubious public that they are adequately funding public schools.

Their ongoing doublespeak drew an outraged letter recently, to the Nelson Now newspaper, from Bruce Schimpf, principal of Salmo Elementary School, who wrote:

"There are times when one gets so angry when reading the [Liberal] news releases in the paper that one has to respond..." In one particular piece of the article Mr. Sufferdine (the local Liberal MLA) suggests that there have been no cuts to education since the Liberal government has taken over.

Bruce Schimpf nails the issue on the head when he points out, "The influx of millions of dollars is, in my opinion, simply a good portion of the money that was taken from the education system in the past few years and now as an election approaches is simply being returned. Somewhat similar to what the government has done to the healthcare system, money being taken away and now being miraculously returned to the system. Hello Mr. Campbell, the people of the Kootenays are not that naive."

You will be told that the provincial government is generously funding public schools, that the per student grant is at record levels, and on and on with the self-congratulatory and deceptive bulletins. But when the projected provincial $20 million annual grant is divided up across the province, school board budgets will tell a vastly different tale.

Even with the current boost in election funding, a few boards will be compelled to run deficits this year.

The sad but undeniable fact remains: Despite the BC Liberals’ manipulation of figures, if re-elected, based on their three-year service plan, they will again put in place a pattern of three years of cutbacks followed by a substantial infusion of funding on the eve of another election. This yo-yo funding pattern guarantees instability in our public school system, with cuts to programs, services, and supports for our students the order of the day. The all too familiar pattern of staff layoffs will start all over again,

Education funding is not a tap that you turn off between elections and turn on when you are seeking re-election.

No wonder a recent national poll finds that politicians head the list of people who are viewed with tremendous distrust by an increasingly skeptical public.

It must be stated, with great clarity, that the provincial government’s $20 million will not even cover the basic, ongoing statutory and non-statutory costs that school boards must meet over the next few years: pensions and benefits, BC Hydro heating bills, a new provincial student information system, provincial curriculum initiatives imposed with no added implementation funding, increased transportation costs, and other inflationary costs.

The projected Consumer Price Index are 2.6% for 2006 and 2.9% for 2007, while the proposed provincial increase of $20 million to school boards amounts to a pathetic increase of 0.5% of the total provincial education budget.

Once more, the Liberals are planning to download costs to school boards. Recall the unfunded increase in teachers’ salaries in 2002, that was suddenly dumped on boards and the all too familiar smoke and mirrors game the BC Liberals play so well with education underfunding emerges. Their repeated use of one-time grants, criticized by school trustees at the trustees’ recent annual general meeting, which provide only temporary relief from cost pressures, will continue.

One hopes that that trenchant old adage, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time," comes into full play during the election now under way.

One person the BC Liberals are not fooling is Bruce Schimpf, the principal of Salmo Elementary School, in the Kootenays.

Year Funding
2005–06 $150 million
2006–07 $20 million
2007–08 $20 million

Source: Ministry of Education operating budget document, p.1, March15, 2005

Noel Herron is a Vancouver School Board trustee. He chairs the VSB’s Personnel and Staff Services Committee.