School boards fire back at minister over savings demands

Education Minister Don McRae faces a growing backlash from school boards for asking them to find savings to cover union wage increases.

The Greater Victoria board is the latest to fire back at the minister. Chairwoman Peg Orcherton sent McRae a letter on Monday arguing that the district has no place to cut without hurting students.

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“Nobody who works in the Greater Victoria School District is superfluous to our needs,” Orcherton wrote.

She joined trustees on the Sunshine Coast and in the North Okanagan who have also spoken out against the move.

McRae sent all boards a letter this month asking them to submit savings plans by mid-January. He wants boards to find savings that will support a 1.5 per cent wage hike for support staff under the government’s co-operative gains mandate. The mandate requires employers to find savings within existing budgets to pay for modest wage increases.

McRae said the money would complement savings found at the provincial level and be used to secure a negotiated deal with support staff.

“To be clear, generated savings obtained by boards must not negatively impact the delivery of education programming for students,” he wrote.

His ministry on Monday characterized the letter as a request, and said 1.5 per cent is merely a target.

But Orcherton called the letter an “outrageous demand” given that government never gives the district enough money as it is. The combination of rising costs and a flat-line budget means the district faces a structural deficit every year.

Orcherton said in an interview that the Greater Victoria board would have to find more than $500,000 in savings in this year’s budget and another $500,000 in 2013-14 to fulfil McRae’s request.

“There is no way that we can provide compensation without hurting student programs,” she said.

Orcherton criticized McRae’s seeming inability to defend his ministry and its budget at the cabinet table.

“The minister of finance has stated that health and education will be protected,” she said. “If this is their idea of protection, then I’m baffled.”

She also slammed the short turnaround expected by McRae. His letter arrived just weeks before the Christmas holidays, and calls for boards to submit their savings plans by the middle of next month.

“Jan. 16, for heaven’s sakes?” Orcherton said. “If we had that amount of money available, we’d already be spending it to support our students.”

She said the board also has to find $1.2 million annually to cover an increased contribution to the Teachers’ Pension Plan. The provincial government has given boards no additional money to pay for that increase, she said.

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