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Column: ‘Savings plan’ for schools will create chaos

Changing the rules in the middle of the game is almost certain to bring howls of protest from the other players. In some drinking establishments, it might bring more than that.

Changing the rules in the middle of the game is almost certain to bring howls of protest from the other players. In some drinking establishments, it might bring more than that.

So when Education Minister Don McRae sent a letter to all school boards this month asking them to submit, by mid-January, a “savings plan” that amounts to a 1.5 per cent reduction in support staff compensation so as to be able to provide a wage increase to those employees under the government’s co-operative gains mandate, well, there were gasps of incredulity.

That request amounts to asking employees to pay for their own raises with the savings coming on the backs of other employees.

In other words: “I get a 1.5 per cent raise and in January, you get to look for another job. Happy New Year.”

“Generated savings obtained by boards must not negatively impact the delivery of education programming for students,” McRae wrote, which assumes that school districts are overloaded with employees who do not provide service to kids.

That is not the case. School districts are complex organizations which require, in addition to instructional services, finance and payroll, maintenance and cleaning, transportation services, labour relations and human resources services, and information technology services.

Even in a modestly sized school district of say 10,000 kids with an operating budget of around $70 million, the 1.5 per cent reduction from support staff compensation would be about $250,000 and could mean a loss of at least five full-time employees in January.

School districts expect a similar request for 2013-14 when the teachers’ collective agreement expires.

Let’s consider the impact of a request from the minister to rejig the budget process mid-game, a process mandated by the School Act.

An understanding of the two-stage procedure the act requires will explain why districts are mystified by a request for an artificial adjustment in January. Pretty dry stuff, but hang in there.

School district operating grants are determined substantially on a student per-capita basis. Districts are obliged to prepare two budget plans to cover operating costs each September-to-June school year. The first, the annual budget, is a “best guess” plan prepared in the spring based on projected enrolments anticipated for the following school year.

It is not until Sept. 30 that districts can count the kids who actually show up. Even then the actual operating grant is usually not confirmed by government until December.

By this time, the district has been in operation for three to four months with staffing levels, class-size levels, maintenance and transportation costs already committed.

Employee contracts limit when staffing commitments can be changed — usually not until January.

Subsequently, an amended budget is prepared in February. This budget is based on actual enrolments from September, plus the recalculated government operating grant, plus other costs which are known and partially incurred.

Some major costs like contributions to pension plans, medical plans, even the cost of energy to heat schools during winter will impact this second prediction.

With school districts already scrambling in January to build the amended or “real” budget based on September’s actual enrolment, the sudden request, with no legislative backing, to change the rules mid-game creates chaos.

By January, with staffing levels, student allocation to classes and other costs established, school districts are figuring out what they need to do to produce a “zero break even” result by the end of the school year in June — an accounting which does not leave the district in deficit.

Unlike senior government, school districts cannot simply declare a deficit. By the end of the school year, the budget must be balanced to the penny. Failure or refusal to do so can result in dismissal of the board of trustees.

All pretty dry stuff unless you are one of the people responsible for seeing to it that B.C.’s 500,000 children are receiving the best service from the public system.

Probably preferable for the minister to just play by the same rules set down for everybody else in the School Act.

 

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.