BEYOND THE HEADLINES: Schools short changed

You wouldn’t think there’s much connection between education and automobiles, but there is

You wouldn’t think there’s much connection between education and automobiles, but there is.

The Insurance Corporation of B.C. recently applied to regulators for a 5.2 per cent increase in basic auto insurance rates.

Beyond rank-and-file citizens, this proposed fee increase means public agencies could be forking out more cash for vehicle insurance. For school districts, that includes buses and maintenance trucks.

Presently, the North Okanagan-Shuswap School District pays about $95,000 annually in automobile insurance. A five per cent hike in ICBC rates amounts to an additional $5,000.

“Five thousand dollars in a $65 million budget would not be significant,” said Sterling Olsen, the district’s secretary-treasurer.

“But it’s just another example of cost pressures boards continue to have to fund.”

No one is disputing that school districts, as well as hospitals, must contend with the rising cost of living. Staffing costs, heat costs, natural gas costs — you get the picture.

But the ironic part is some of these inflated fees come from B.C. Hydro or ICBC, arms of the very same government that funds education and health care in the province.

The problem is that Victoria doesn’t bump up its contribution to school boards and health authorities to make up the difference. That means the 5.2 per cent hike in ICBC rates will come directly out of existing school district budgets that are already cut to the bone.

In the case of the North Okanagan-Shuswap, trustees and administrators faced a $1.8 million shortfall for 2014/15. Among the cuts were special education teachers, counselling staff, speech and language pathologists and teacher/librarians.

If you still think $5,000 more for ICBC is peanuts, consider this.

“Five thousand dollars supports one hour per day of a support worker for a student for a year,” said Olsen.

It may still not seem like a lot, but for a child coping with a learning disability or physical challenges, that one hour a day with a specialist could make all of the difference in the world.

Now it should be pointed out that Icky Bicky is also dealing with financial pressures and particularly rising injury claims.

According to Black Press reporter Jeff Nagel, bodily injury claims hit $1.9 billion in 2013, up $73 million from 2012 and by more than $500 million from five years earlier.

Legal and medical costs are also apparently up.

Obviously ICBC needs to put its house in order, but it’s coming on the backs of schools and hospitals. And consider that unlike ICBC or even private schools, public school boards and health authorities have very limited opportunities for revenue generation. Increased costs mean they must reduce services.

If the government was serious about investing in public education, it would ensure that funding for districts at least holds its own against utility bills exerted by Crown corporations or ministries. This wouldn’t take care of outstanding issues regarding class size and composition, but at least districts could hold their own. Government officials may want to plead poverty but how many billions of dollars a year go into coffers through ICBC and B.C. Hydro?

The bottom line is that the cost of living creates significant challenges for our public institutions, and until something changes, B.C. schools will continue to be nickle-and-dimed to death.