B.C. public schools to get $29.4 million for supplies; NDP calls timing ironic

School boards across the province will get $29.4 million to buy supplies this year that “reduce costs for parents and help teachers deliver B.C.’s new curriculum,” the Ministry of Education said in a news release.

The $29.4 million Student Learning Grant announced Sunday is to be used for supplies like textbooks, computer programs, athletic equipment and art supplies, the ministry said. It amounts to about $50 per public school student.

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Meanwhile, all eyes are on Tuesday’s provincial budget, waiting to see how much the $5.1-billion education budget will increase to cover the costs of the teachers’ win in Canada’s Supreme Court. The province has already committed $50 million for this year to hire additional teachers, an amount Education Minister Mike Bernier said will be annualized to $100 million a year, going forward.

The B.C. Teachers’ Federation estimates it will cost $300 million a year to fully restore teachers’ contracts to 2002 working conditions. Talks between the government and teachers to reach a settlement are going “really well,” Bernier said.

“We’re very close to moving to the next stages. Let’s just say I’m very optimistic of where we’re at,” Bernier said, adding that “non-stop” meetings are ongoing.

Tuesday’s budget will likely not contain a specific amount that represents a final negotiation of the court case, Bernier said.

“Until it’s actually decided and agreed upon at the table, we don’t know what the numbers are, but the minister of finance has committed to me that wherever we land in our negotiations, that he will be able to accommodate it in his budget,” Bernier said.

While the new money for supplies will be welcome, school districts had to cut $29 million from their budgets in 2015 for so-called administrative savings. At the same time, many districts around the province were grappling with making necessary cuts to balance their budgets in order to pay increasing costs like BC Hydro bills and medical premiums that were not covered by government funding.

In 2016, districts had to find $25 million in administrative savings, but that was later returned to districts to spend on operating expenses.

The $29.4 million for supplies will be available very soon.

“This investment will help every student and is another part our commitment to make sure our kids are ready for the jobs of tomorrow,” Bernier said.

Public schools will get $27.4 million, while private or independent schools will get $2 million. The money will be distributed based on the number of students in a district. Schools, which will decide what to buy with the money, will report to parents and the province on how the funds are used.

The ministry has made several other funding announcements this year, including $14.7 million for bus services, $1.8 million to keep some rural schools open, $6 million to train teachers on coding and to buy computers, and a $250 tax credit for parents who buy school supplies.

Meanwhile, the New Democratic Party’s education critic says the provincial government's announcement of a one-time Student Learning Grant is "pathetic."

Rob Fleming, MLA for Victoria-Swan Lake, says it's ironic that the grant gives $29.4 million to public and independent schools to purchase supplies and resources, because that's the same amount stripped from districts through ministry-ordered administrative savings barely one year ago.

The B.C. Teachers Federation welcomes the grant but president Glen Hansman says it's only half of what is required to address classroom needs.

— with a file from The Canadian Press

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