Local school trustees have added their voices to a growing chorus that’s opposed to a “disrespectful” order from the B.C. government to carve out cash from budgets this year and next to fund possible wage increases for staff.
At a special meeting Thursday, Ginny Manning, who chairs the board of the Okanagan Skaha School District, said coming up with $150,000 by mid-January is not only “impossible,” but circumvents the normal budget planning process that requires broad consultation.
“This doesn’t allow any of that,” Manning said.
“It’s very disrespectful.”
Earlier this month, Education Minister Don McRae sent a letter to every school district in B.C. asking them to come up with savings plans equal to 1.5 per cent of their support staff budgets to cover any contract gains made by CUPE support staff members in collective bargaining that’s set to begin this spring.
The savings plans are part of the B.C. government’s new co-operative gains mandate, which allows for public-sector wage increases if the money can be freed up elsewhere in existing budgets. McRae noted in his letter, however, that the savings plans must not transfer costs to the public or result in decreased service levels.
Trustees at Thursday’s meeting received a summary of letters already sent to the minister by 31 other school districts and agreed to send their own that will tell the government it can’t comply with the demand and ask it to rescind the co-operative gains mandate.
That mandate effectively tips the government’s hand anyway, said Trustee Walter Huebert.
“It’s got to be the strangest way of negotiating salaries. It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he said.
Trustee Shelley Clarke said she’s worried districts might also be asked to find equivalent savings to fund wage increases for teachers, whose contracts expire in June, and wondered if McRae’s letter is simply intended to set the stage for this spring’s provincial election.
“Do you get the sense that this could be a political shell game? That they’re going to take this money away from us but give it back when the election comes?” Clarke said.
Secretary-treasurer Ron Shongrunden said the outcry from B.C. school districts in unlike anything he’s ever seen.
“This is unprecedented in terms of response and quickness,” he told trustees.
Shongrunden also confirmed district staff has yet to come up with a plan for how it might find savings if the government doesn’t rescind its request.
“We haven’t looked at that at all,” he said.
Superintendent Wendy Hyer said 90 per cent of the district’s operating budget goes to salaries and that finding $150,000 without affecting services “is pretty un-doable.”
“There’s no recognition that districts across the province have been cutting budgets for 10 years,” Hyer said.
CUPE school staffers in the Okanagan have been without a contract since June. The union has said previously that the savings plan is unfair because it downloads onto school districts extra costs that should be funded by the provincial government.