Okanagan Skaha trustees worried about funds to fix and build schools

Okanagan Skaha School District Trustee Tracy St. Claire - Submitted
Okanagan Skaha School District Trustee Tracy St. Claire
— image credit: Submitted

School districts are battling back against a new B.C. government policy that may require them to put operating surpluses towards capital projects rather than back into classrooms.

“I think it’s unfortunate when we have to start thinking in that context that we might not get a (new) school because we’re not generating surpluses,” Okanagan Skaha School District secretary-treasurer Bonne Roller Routley told local trustees at their board meeting this week in Penticton.

“Every penny that is given to the school district in the year… should be spent on education for those children in that year,” she said.

Earlier this month, B.C. deputy education minister Rob Wood sent a letter to superintendents explaining a recent auditor general’s report found many public sector groups were holding cash “in excess of what is needed for operating purposes.”

Using the money to instead cost-share up to 50 per cent of major capital projects would help school districts get infrastructure built sooner and also reduce the government’s cost of borrowing, he said.

At present, the ministry picks up the tab for most capital projects, ranging from construction of new schools to replacing boilers, and Wood said that practice will continue if a district “is deemed to have no available cash.”

Superintendent Wendy Hyer said the new policy may interfere with her planning work.

For example, she said the district recently received one-time funding for a new literacy program for 12 elementary teachers, but put some of that cash aside to allow other educators to take part later.

“If (ministry officials) saw that money sitting there now, they might say, ‘Well, you can pay for that new boiler at that school using those dollars,”” Hyer said.

“So it’s actually a hindrance to doing any long-term, systemic planning, which pays dividends to the organization.”

The school board voted to join with others in writing a letter to the education minister to express disapproval of the new policy.

“I think they already undermine us a lot by not having stable funds available in a predicable kind of way, and to take away any planning that you can do, I don’t think it serves any good purpose,” said Trustee Tracy St. Claire.

The most expensive capital project currently on the district’s wish list is a $15-million renovation of Summerland Secondary School.

But with only about $30,000 in surplus funds available, said board chairman Bruce Johnson, “We’re kind of in limbo on that project.”

School districts on the Lower Mainland have also spoken out against the new policy, in particular how it will affect their ability to fund seismic upgrades to protect staff and students in the event of an earthquake.



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