BEYOND THE HEADLINES: Students pay the price

With budget axe coming out at local schools, students are the ones who will suffer

The budget axe is coming out again at local schools.

Just a few months after another round of deep cuts, trustees have been told that more needs to be done to accommodate a tentative two-year contract between the provincial government and the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

“With our declining enrolment and increasing costs, we had a really hard time last spring trying to determine what to save and what would have to be changed or lost,” said Bobbi Johnson, North Okanagan-Shuswap School District chairperson.

“There will be more tough decisions now.”

For the North Okanagan-Shuswap, an extra $250,000 in savings must be found the first year and $440,000 in the second year.

At the Vernon School District office, the impact is $250,000 for this year and a further $200,000 next year.

The situation is even worse for the much larger Central Okanagan School District — $700,000 in the first year and $1.2 million during the subsequent year.

“In the short term, we have enough in surplus to cover (the first year) but to deplete all of our surplus is not a good idea,” chairperson Moyra Baxter told the Kelowna Capital News.

Now, no one should blame the union for this scenario.

Bus drivers, trades people, certified education assistants, custodians and secretaries have gone without a raise for a few years and the 3.5 per cent wage hike in the proposed deal isn’t much more than the cost of living.

The problem is the provincial government agrees to a collective agreement without ensuring school districts have the required financial resources.

That means districts have no choice but to look within their existing budgets and tighten the belt further.

Of course provincial officials have stated no cuts will be made to core services, but that’s unrealistic given what’s been happening for years.

As part of the 2013/14 budget, the Vernon district slashed 19 teaching positions, 1.4 school-based administration staff and one custodian. There is also reduced maintenance staff. If those aren’t cuts to core services, what is?

It’s been suggested by some provincial officials that the money for the collective agreement could be found by charging students to ride the bus. But keep in mind that bus routes have already been consolidated in most areas and a fee would hit low-income families particularly hard.

The latest rounds of cuts will slice even deeper into the bone that is the public education system, and could put the future of those very employees getting raises in question.

Education Minister Peter Fassbender has stated that funding for public education is at record levels despite falling enrolment, and while that may be the case, that investment is not keeping up with the rising costs facing districts. Fuel to run buses is soaring, while B.C. Hydro, a government Crown corporation, is hinting at higher electricity rates. There are also increased medical premiums for staff and the price for paper, textbooks and computers has climbed.

The ministry can brag all it wants about reaching labour peace and avoiding job action. But the reality is that students will continue to pay the price of inadequate government policies.