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Students, parents rally outside school district office to protest budget cuts

For many, it feels like they're having “deja vu” of last year’s budget process, when music programs were also on the SD61 chopping block.

Up to 350 people attended a rally Monday at the Greater Victoria School District offices to voice their concerns about possible budget cuts that could hit music programs and school counsellors.

A number of students left school early to be part of the event — about 250 students turned up, many with signs and some with musical instruments.

With the song We’re Not Gonna Take It by Twisted Sister being sung in the background, parent Karin Kwan told the crowd it felt like “deja vu” of last year’s budget process, when music programs were also on the chopping block.

“We’ve seen so many cuts that go directly to students right away,” said Kwan, a member of the group Advocacy for Music in Schools and mother of two daughters at Reynolds Secondary and one at Cedar Hill Middle.

“You’re looking at last year, we took some music and some cuts to counselling and [education assistants] and that kind of thing.”

The rally was a response to the school board’s special budget meeting on Monday. The board is wrestling with a deficit of $7 million as it attempts to balance its budget of about $271 million. All school boards must produce a balanced budget each year by June 30.

A final meeting to pass the budget is planned for Thursday, with all meetings being held online.

Sophie LeRoy, a 17-year-old Grade 11 student at Esquimalt High, said many students walked out of school about 1 p.m. to attend the 4 p.m. rally, despite stormy weather, including students from Oak Bay, Reynolds and Vic High.

LeRoy said letters were sent to the district offices to let officials know students would be involved.

Possible cuts to school counsellors are a particular worry for students, LeRoy said.

Mental-health experts have said counsellors are especially important as young people experience added stress as a result of the pandemic and war in Ukraine.

LeRoy, who is in band, where she plays piano and drums, and has participated in strings and choir, said music is also very important to her. “I’ve been in music for pretty much my whole school career.”

Concern about the cuts is widespread among her peers, who feel as if their voices are not being heard, LeRoy said.

Oaklands Elementary parent Chris Geater said his daughter, Matilda wants to start playing the violin next year, and he is eager to see strings continue. “It’s so important,” he said of music classes. “It’s a place where students can feel safe.”

Eliminating the district’s strings program this year is expected to save $952,908, while doing away with a proposed eight counsellors — bringing the number down to what is required in the collective agreement — would save $924,480.

District secretary-treasurer Kim Morris said the district has received a lot of good feedback this year on the budget, on topics ranging from career-centre co‑ordinators to school counsellors, music and daytime custodians.

A proposal to cut daytime custodians would save $246,923 at elementary schools, $197,282 at middle schools and $187,129 at secondary schools.

jbell@timescolonist.com