Editorial: Education cash corrects an error

The government giveth, the government taketh away and the government giveth back again. What a pointless exercise. Education Minister Mike Bernier announced Tuesday that the B.C. government is redirecting $25 million in administration savings from school districts back into services for students. School districts can use the money any way they see fit.

It might sound generous, but it’s not. In 2015, B.C. school districts, struggling to make grants from the government match rising costs, were ordered to trim administrative expenses by $54 million over two years. School boards were urged to pick “low-hanging fruit” from trees long plucked bare so budgets could be balanced.

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But the districts went to work, scraping, saving, cutting and economizing. The Saanich school district, for example, reduced bus services, cut back on custodial services, cancelled some technology upgrades, reduced budgets for school supplies, cut down library time, closed schools, introduced a two-week spring break and spread the workload out among fewer administrative staff members.

That resulted in savings of $700,000, allowing the district to balance its budget while maintaining educational programs that, as superintendent Keven Elder pointed out, were already at a minimal level after a decade of budget restraints.

Then the Saanich trustees learned, as did trustees of other school districts, that the money they saved was not theirs to keep. It was taken from their operating grants, sucked back into provincial coffers.

School districts got another nasty surprise when the province dinged them for the annual costs of a new provincial network for Internet access. For the Saanich district, that cost was $284,000 a year (the older system cost $30,000 a year), leaving the district nearly $1 million short of balancing the budget.

In desperation, trustees considered submitting a deficit budget, illegal under B.C.’s School Act. That’s what got the nine-member Cowichan school board fired in 2012 after voting 5-4 for a budget that was $3.7 million in the red, saying budget cuts would adversely affect the quality of education.

Saanich was only one of many B.C. school districts struggling to make ends meet. After coming up with a deficit of $1.7 million, the Sooke school district cut specialist teaching positions and eliminated programs for students with special needs to balance the budget.

The Greater Victoria school district jumped through the province’s hoops and approved a balanced budget in April. But it also sent a letter to Bernier saying the district required another $8.3 million for “unmet needs,” including an additional 52 teachers, 50 support staff, speech pathologists, a behavioural consultant and other staff.

Education is funded through government grants, which are based on enrolment. But expenses do not necessarily decline when enrolment does. Many inflationary costs are beyond school districts’ control, such as B.C. Hydro bills, higher MSP premiums and other benefits, as well as rising labour costs.

Encouraging frugality is wise, but school districts have gone past cutting the fat out of their budgets. What lies next is amputation of valuable educational components.

The province erred in clawing back the administrative savings it ordered. Tuesday’s announcement is not about generosity, but about giving back part of what it took away. It corrects an error. No one is fooled.

The Sunshine Coast school board said it well in a recent letter to Bernier:

“We ask that you shift to a greater co-operative approach for both decision-making and resource allocation, and away from communication that simply spins the numbers to enhance government’s marketing plan.

“Our students are too important to be pawns in the discussion of resourcing public education.”

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