Leaders of two local school districts are struggling with a government order to come up with an estimated $210,000 in savings this year alone to offset expected wage increases for support staff.
“It’s really difficult, if not an impossible situation that we’re facing, and I don’t know where the board’s going to go with this,” said Ginny Manning, board chair of the Okanagan Skaha School District.
Manning and colleagues around the province have been told by Education Minister Don McRae that by mid-January, their districts will need to come up with savings plans for this year and next worth the equivalent of 1.5 per cent of their annual support staff budgets.
In Okanagan Skaha, that’s about $150,000 a year, money that will be set aside for any contract gains made by CUPE staff members when bargaining begins in the spring under the B.C. government’s co-operative gains mandate.
That new bargaining strategy allows for public-sector wage increases so long as the money comes from cost reductions inside existing budgets, and differs from 2010’s net-zero mandate, which did not allow for wage increases but did make room for improvements elsewhere in collective agreements.
Manning said her district is already facing a 1.5 per cent funding reduction for 2013-14, plus higher costs for utilities and employee benefits.
“Up to this point, we’ve been able to stay away from (cuts in) the classroom. However, as I say, with each year there’s less and less to cut, and requests such as this one add significant pressure to a budget that’s extremely tight,” she said.
The Okanagan Similkameen School District expects it will have to come up with $120,000 over two years.
“This is going to be very challenging for us as well as for all other districts,” board chair Marieze Tarr said. “Trustees are very concerned about this as you can imagine.”
Manning said she is trying to organize a special meeting of her board to discuss the matter ahead of its next scheduled get-together on Jan. 14 and may join with other boards that plan to outline their concerns in letters to the education minister.
In his Dec. 3 letter to school boards, McRae said the savings plans will help his government meet its commitment to balance the budget “at a time when public-sector workers expect to negotiate wage increases.”
The savings, he continued, can be funded by things like operational cost reductions, increased efficiencies and service redesigns, but must not be generated by transferring costs to the public or reducing service levels.
Education Ministry spokesperson Matt Silver said in a statement that individual school boards, not government, know best how to cut costs.
“Boards of education are in the best position to determine whether savings initiatives would have an impact on services for students,” he said. “For example, if a board chose to restructure transportation, only staff at the local level can assess the impact on students.”
Silver noted the 1.5 per cent is a target only, and said the deadline was set at mid-January so savings plans can be put in place before substantive bargaining begins this spring.
CUPE Local 523 staff in the Okanagan have been without a contract since July 1 and Mike Johnson, the unit chair for Okanagan Skaha, said in a statement that the call for savings plans is unfair.
“It is the responsibility of the provincial government to adequately fund our education system and not offload the responsibility onto school districts and their communities which have already been economically hit hard,” Johnson said. “The government’s insistence on balanced budgets instead of needs-based budgets puts more pressure on school districts to cut services, inevitably affecting the quality of education for all students.”