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June 16, 2010

Vancouver School Board Education Cuts

by Ian Weniger

School Cuts

The BC Liberals government is taking on the last great social program and the last union left to smash: public education and the BC Teachers' Federation (BCTF). Three previous ministers of education could not stop the BCTF from successfully stopping attacks on their credentials or their right to strike. But following the 2002 contract-stripping, the government began downloading the cost of teacher salary increases to individual school districts and declining to increase funds for supplies, maintenance and resources.

All school districts are now funded on a per-student basis. This formula is a smokescreen; as enrolment falls, the increase in per-student funds appears to make up for fewer students. Over time, however, the actual amount made available to run a district and meet the needs of all students has fallen to the point where school boards cannot keep up with the twenty-first century technological, social, and physical challenges of students and school buildings.

On top of this, provincial law requires school trustees to file a balanced budget or face dismissal directly by the minister, replaced by a special superintendent to cut costs when elected local officials do not. The resulting pressure on trustees results in more school closures and fewer days of school, such as four-day weeks. These closures download costs to parents in childcare, increased travel time to fewer schools, more stress due to overcrowding and less access to teachers, staff, and classmates.

The newest minister of education, former BC Medical Association president Margaret MacDiarmid, has insulted public education every week since taking office. Most notably, when asked why physical education initiatives had their funding cut in a year that would see the Olympic Games in Vancouver, MacDiarmid said students could get their daily exercise by jumping and dancing at recess and running and walking to public parks.

There is money to avoid these cuts, even after the eight-billion-dollar Winter Olympics. The government has committed half a billion dollars to build an unnecessary new roof for BC Place Stadium. And, as if to recognize that entertainment was the new growth industry as resource extraction becomes extinct, there are also plans to build a luxury casino hotel next to the stadium at a cost of another half billion dollars.

The unions are spent and defensive. The BCTF lost the strike of 2005, mainly because the BC Federation of Labour discouraged a mass movement to defend public education that tens of thousands many union and non-union workers were prepared to follow. This betrayal, along with the virtually ineffective consultations required by law with teachers on oversize classes has demoralized union members and left local presidents swamped with grievances that have been poorly handled. When the Vancouver School Board (VSB) asked teachers to consider a cost-cutting modified school calendar with an extra 10 paid days off with pay, teachers snapped up the offer, not considering that families would be subsidizing the board with increased childcare costs for those missed days of school. This lack of solidarity jarred parent advocates.

The VSB trustees are led by former parent activist Patti Bacchus, socialist bookstore manager Jane Bouey, VSB teacher Allan Wong, former teacher-principal and retired BCTF president Al Blakey, and former civic workers president Mike Lombardi. The board of trustees instructed district staff to create a plan that would cut 18 million dollars in services to make up for the ministry shortfall. That plan was to have been decided on April 30, in time for the regular planning process to prepare for the next school year. The cuts have been revised several times, with each new version more withering and penetrating. Music programs for elementary students, department heads for non-academic courses, English as a Second Language programs, multicultural liason workers, general painting and maintenance, alternate programs for high-needs programs, textbook and technology spending, and dozens of other basic services have been put forward for cutting. The trustees urged parents, teachers, the general public, and even students to continue pressuring the provincial goverment for funds to support public education.

The pressure from every one of those groups brought a cynical response from the minister. MacDiarmid, citing concerns from Bacchus that cuts that would be educationally unacceptable, recruited the provincial comptroller general, Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland, to act as a special advisor. The advisor was to find savings to assist the VSB with funding core programs, but specifically directed Wenezenki-Yolland to refrain from commenting on provincial responsibility for education funding.

The comptroller submitted her report to the minister on June 2nd. The cost savings amounted to less than a million dollars, but Wenezenki-Yolland’s main point was that the the VSB was spending too much time advocating and not enough time finding ways to charge higher user fees for groups like childcare providers who rent space in schools. The majority of trustees immediately replied that the report provided no useful ideas to find new money, and demanded that the minister take responsibility for properly funding public education and stop blaming school trustees for doing their job of advocating for students. MacDiarmid then demanded that the trustees submit a balanced budget to the ministry by June 18th using the report’s recommendations. She has repeatedly said she is not ready to fire the VSB trustees yet.

After hearing from thousands of parents, and knowing that every school ddistrict in BC is watching, the VSB trustees are confident enough to delay their decision to build even more pressure on MacDiarmid and Campbell.

Parents are feeling betrayed. Many who want to fight back are inexperienced and looking for organization. Some are disaffected Liberal voters, but most are staggered that the province is prepared to force school boards to cut public school services aggressively in the face of Olympic expenditures and a billion dollars in entertainment spending. Several demonstrations have been organized by Vancouver Parents for Public Education (VPPE) in front of Dr MacDiarmid's constituency office, and the Premier's local office has also been picketed. So far the minister has met only once briefly to hear trustees, but never with families.

This struggle needs the widest possible support because it is the biggest challenge to the welfare state. Public education in BC is one the best school systems in the world, and it will be the safety net that saves children from the worst consequences of the recession. BC school trustees have voted to support any school district that is force to into unreasonable cutbacks, but have so far been too worried about their political futures to publicly support the VSB. BCTF and supporting unions are limited by collective agreements as to how they can show solidarity, but members will rise to support parents and students if they move independently to defend trustees who refuse to cut public education into collapse.