Clark rankles school trustees, labelling cuts ‘low-hanging fruit’

Premier Christy Clark riled school trustees Wednesday by referring to the $54 million in administrative cuts facing districts as “low-hanging fruit.”

Speaking to reporters on the steps of the B.C. legislature, Clark said taxpayers want to see greater efficiency from boards of education.

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“I don’t know how many times I have heard people tell me over the years, ‘Why don’t you just amalgamate school boards across province?’ ” she said. “My answer to that is, ‘Because local school boards listen to local communities and reflect those local priorities.’

“But there is no reason that in the back office — the part that has nothing to do with delivering educational programs on a local level — there’s no reason we can’t find savings there.”

Clark pointed to “group buying” by health authorities as a way to save money by integrating administrative programs.

“For heaven’s sakes, if the health-care system can do it, if the advanced-education system can do it, so can local school governments,” Clark said. “And taxpayers deserve that savings. It’s low-hanging fruit and I know that they’ll be able to find it.”

B.C. School Trustees’ Association president Teresa Rezansoff said Clark’s comments ignore the fact that school districts have been making cuts for years.

She said districts already work closely together to absorb rising Medical Services Plan premiums, higher electricity rates, and salary increases that the provincial government refuses to cover. She said some districts share secretary-treasurers, while others join forces to purchase goods and services.

“It’s inaccurate to say that we haven’t already been doing this stuff and it doesn’t reflect the reality in school districts,” she said. “It also is not a fair recognition of the really tough decisions and hard choices that have already been made in school districts across the province.”

Rezansoff said districts will continue to look for efficiencies, but she questioned their ability to find $29 million this year and a further $25 million in 2016-17 as stated in the provincial budget.

“I don’t believe, and I don’t think anybody in our sector really believes, that the $29 million is going to be found in shared services,” she said.

NDP Leader John Horgan said Clark’s comments reflect her fuzzy thinking on the issue.

“Low-hanging fruit usually gets picked in year one or two or three of a mandate,” he said.

“We’re in year 14 and I think school boards appropriately are responding by saying, ‘How many times are you going to come to us saying we’re the bottom of the tree?’ ”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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