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Education minister pays visit to South Okanagan schools
Though the Okanagan Skaha school district might be facing as much as a $1 million shortfall as they work through the budgeting process, Education Minister George Abbot said he has confidence the district will be able to cope.
“The technology in schools here in Penticton is probably No. 1 in the province. In fact, I wouldn’t say probably, it is No. 1 in the province. You’ve got an amazing technology program here,” said Abbott, who was in the South Okanagan on Thursday for a day-long tour of Okanagan Skaha. “In fact, I think overall, you’ve got some very strong programs in a number of areas. I don’t have any lack of confidence about the provision of quality education in the Penticton school district. You do a great job here.”
Some local teachers, however, may see the situation differently. In a letter to Minister Abbott, Carol Barton, a Grade 4 teacher at Giant’s Head Elementary, suggested the ministry needed to fund technology in schools better.
“As technology is a cornerstone for personalized 21st century learning, we wonder how we will manage with a lack of funds for hardware, software, training and support,” said Barton in the letter. “Please, fund the equipment and maintenance of it, and fund the training we might need to use the equipment. Right now much of our equipment and software is outdated and we struggle daily to make do with what we have.”
But, the minister said, the district is likely going to have to keep doing more with less. He won’t have any firm figures until the budget is delivered, but Abbott isn’t expecting any increase in funding to the Ministry of Education.
“I’ll find out on budget day, like other British Columbians, what the budget is for education. We certainly have had many discussions with the finance minister and the treasury board,” Abbott said. “If I have an increase at all, it will be a pleasant surprise. These are challenging times for the province and challenging times economically. We have though made some shifts in terms of the budget formula, the funding formula.”
The minister is also confident that changes in the formula used to dole out funds to the province’s school districts will help, though there are questions locally about how effective it will be in a mid-sized district like Penticton.
“It’s funny, the smaller districts tell me about the unique challenges of being small; the larger ones tell me about the unique challenges of being large and the middle-sized ones the unique challenges of being middle-sized,” said Abbott. “I think it is challenging for all the districts. I don’t think there is any district I have seen that really has an easy time of it and it is because everyone wants to provide every opportunity, every program they can.”
While he may be positive about the ability of school districts to cope with shrinking budgets, Abbott is less hopeful about ongoing labour negotiations with the B.C. Teachers’ Federation.
“There has now been close to 75 bargaining sessions and the parties have not moved significantly from where they were the first time they met,” said Abbott. “It’s been disappointing generally, and I am not optimistic, but the process continues.”
Abbott said the province is sticking to the net-zero mandate, though the BCTF is still refusing to accept a contract without financial increases. He hints, however, that action may be taken over the teachers’ ongoing job action if negotiations continue to drag.
“I have said that I don’t wish to see children go through an entire year without a report card home to their parents. Nor do I wish to see principals and vice-principals worn to the degree that they are,” said Abbott. “I respect their (BCTF) position, but obviously, the government can’t move on this, we have signed many agreements with public servants at net zero.”