Funding cuts are devastating B.C. schools, trustees warn premier

School trustees from across Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands are lambasting Premier Christy Clark for referring to $54 million in administrative cuts as “low-hanging fruit.”

The Vancouver Island School Trustees Association, which represents 12 districts, warned Clark in a letter that the cuts will have a “devastating and detrimental” impact on education.

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“This wilful and blatant disregard for our business experts and educational leaders will most certainly be felt throughout the system for years to come,” wrote Eve Flynn, association president and chairwoman of the Qualicum school district.

She said the cuts target senior administrators, who have been under a multi-year wage freeze, as well as unionized support staff, which has already been severely cut.

“To believe that the past and future reductions in expenditures do not impact classrooms is unrealistic,” Flynn said.

Saanich board chairwoman Victoria Martin said trustees across the Island were incensed by Clark’s comments to reporters at the B.C. legislature last month. “I think there was a serious concern about the premier’s lack of sensitivity and apparent lack of awareness of what school districts have been through in the last decade.”

The provincial budget calls for school districts to find $29 million in administrative savings this year and a further $25 million in 2016-17.

The government has been vague on where districts should find the money, but insists they restrict the cuts to “non-instructional budgets.”

Budget documents note that colleges and universities trimmed $50 million over three years through “joint procurement for some goods and services, negotiating lower banking and credit card fees, efficiencies in information technology” and other savings.

Clark said that if health authorities and post-secondary schools have been able to find savings through “group buying” efforts, school districts should be able to do it, too. “And taxpayers deserve that savings,” she said. “It’s low-hanging fruit and I know that they’ll be able to find it.”

Education Minister Peter Fassbender reiterated that point Tuesday.

“We’ve demonstrated in the health-care sector, in the post-secondary sector, that when we work hard together, and we look for structural efficiencies, we can find those,” he said. “I believe that to be the case with school districts and we’re going to continue to work with them.”

The Island trustees’ association, however, notes that boards have already made extensive cuts and changes over the past decade, including moving to four-day school weeks in some districts, adopting two-week spring breaks in others, cutting clerical and support staff, and reducing hours for custodians and groundskeepers.

The letter warns that further cuts will erode education, harm teacher development and, ultimately, hurt students.

“We ask that you consider the impact that this will have over the longer term.”

NDP education critic Rob Fleming said trustees were insulted by Clark’s suggestion that they are sitting on bloated budgets.

“For 10 years, school districts have been forced to make very significant deep cuts — cuts that reached into the classroom,” he said.

“In [Greater Victoria], we already have a two-week spring break, not for educational purposes but so they can turn the heat down in the buildings and try and save money. Parents have had to scramble and pay all kinds of fees out of pocket for an excessively long spring break.

“There is no more low-hanging fruit. That was gone long ago.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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