Greater Victoria school trustees decided Monday to delay debate on their own salaries until their November meeting. That’s a start. They should keep kicking the issue down the road until financial conditions improve.
Trustee Tom Ferris had moved that the board re-establish an automatic formula that saw trustee pay reviewed every three years and compared to five similar districts elsewhere in the province. The board decided nearly two years ago to forgo raises when public-sector unions were being asked to accept a wage freeze. An agreement with school support staff that calls for a 3.5 per cent wage increase over two years prompted Ferris to reopen the debate on trustee pay.
School board members are not paid a princely sum, and they haven’t had a raise in five years. To consider raising their salaries now is not unreasonable, and it would not have a significant impact on the district’s budget — raising the salaries 10 per cent would cost less than $20,000 a year.
But the timing is bad.
The board, already struggling with a deficit of $9.8 million for the 2014-15 school year, got saddled with another $1.2-million liability when the province negotiated the wage increase with support staff, then told school districts to find the money within their budgets.
It’s inherently unfair that the province makes a decision, then dumps the consequences onto the school boards. Peg Orcherton, Greater Victoria board chairwoman, pointed this out in a letter Oct. 9 to Education Minister Peter Fassbender: “While we believe that our employees are due a fair wage increase, your request that we find additional savings to pay the wage increase presents us with a significant challenge.
“Since the province has controlled the negotiations, it is essential that the province provides funding to school districts to cover the costs associated with support-staff unions.”
We support school boards in that stance, but, as the province has been firm in its refusal to cover support-staff pay increases, we are reminded of a quote by Sydney Smith, 19th-century wit and British clergyman: “I am just going to pray for you at St. Paul’s, but with no very lively hope of success.”
So the school board must wrestle with the reality of an $11-million deficit by scrimping and scratching for ways to cut costs. Most million-dollar savings were likely found and implemented long ago; the solutions now lie in a multitude of thousand-dollar savings. The amount involved in raising trustees’ pay would be a drop in the bucket, but each drop counts in the water-torture exercise of balancing the budget.
While giving trustees a modest increase would do no great financial harm, it would be bad optics. There’s a jarring dissonance in pleading poverty with the province at the same time you’re considering giving yourself a raise.
In difficult times, front-line workers are called on to sacrifice, but that call rings hollow if leaders don’t also sacrifice. Asking schools to find savings will be a bit easier if trustees are seen as setting aside their own interests for the good of the district. Without going into the financial situations of individual trustees, it’s reasonable to assume most won’t suffer from forgoing a pay increase, unlike janitors, secretaries and classroom aides whose jobs are their sole means of support.
The province has helped put the district into a tight spot, and it’s not fair. But as teachers and parents constantly point out to children, life is often unfair. Learning to deal with it is part of growth.
Trustees deserve a raise. This just isn’t the time.