Prince George school trustees are united in their opposition to a government request to cut the school board's budget to help pay for support staff wage increases.
In a Dec. 20 letter addressed to Education Minister Don McRae, School District 57 chair Sharel Warrington said while her board recognizes the financial pressures the government is facing, schools have already had their budgets reduced significantly and should not have to find more savings to cover employee wage increases.
"In balancing our budgets, we have had to introduce and execute drastic measures to stretch finite resources, while at the same time striving to meet the needs of our students and district operations," said Warrington. "It is of great concern the ministry believes there are broad savings readily available in the K-12 sector."
The ministry is asking school boards to reduce their budgets enough to fund a 1.5 per cent wage hike to support staff now in the process of negotiating a two-year collective agreement. The government wants each school board's savings plans in place by mid-January as a condition before bargaining with support staff resumes, but Warrington says the proposal should be withdrawn immediately.
"Our board, along with many others, believes the request at this time is unreasonable and poorly timed, being dropped on us six months into the current fiscal period," said Warrington.
"Learning that enriches the life of each student in our district is our first and foremost priority. In order to achieve this goal, we believe all of our employees are to be valued and be fairly compensated for the work they do, this should be and can be achieved in a climate of collective bargaining."
Warrington said school boards have already considered all of the government's suggested examples of how to save money. In SD 57, administrative staff in schools and the district office have been cut, programs have been altered or suspended, and declining enrollments have forced trustees to close 10 schools since 2008.
The co-operative gains mandate replaced the province's net-zero mandate, applied to all public sectors to settle contracts which expired in 2012. The strategy is designed to increase flexibility of the employers to fund wage increases within existing budgets through operational cost reductions, increased efficiencies, staggered implementation of wage increases, service redesigns and finding more revenues. The budget savings would have to be achieved without downloading costs to the public and without reducing existing service levels. The ministry is giving each school board the responsibility to find those savings because each individual board is better-positioned to know which cuts would have the least impact on its students.
"To be clear, generated savings obtained by boards must not negatively impact delivery of educational programming for students," said McRae, in a letter sent to all 60 B.C. school boards.
Province-wide, there are close to 26,000 school support staff, a group of educational assistants, custodians, tradespeople, bus drivers, maintenance and clerical staff mostly affiliated with Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) locals. CUPE Local 3742 represents about 750 support staff in SD 57.
A year ago, support staff ratified a two-year collective agreement with no wage increases, which expired on June 30, 2012. The province and CUPE have not held negotiations since early December.
Local 3742 president Lorraine Prouse echoed Warrington's concerns that students and school staff should not be made to suffer as the government struggles to balance its budget.
"The provincial governments so-called co-operative gains mandate is neither," said Prouse. "It forces school boards to cooperate with its demands to cut services. There are no gains.
"It demands unattainable cutbacks from a system that is already stretched to the limit by years of underfunding. Add to that the governments insistence that every school board in B.C. must by law deliver a balanced budget that ignores what districts need to ensure the best quality of education possible for our children."
Prouse pointed to the Cowichan school board, fired by the province in July after it passed a deficit budget, as an example of what can happen when funding for schools fails to keep pace with rising costs.
"The provincial governments insistence on balanced budgets for school districts instead of needs-based budgets puts ever increasing pressure on our school districts to cut services," said Prouse. "As funding protection levels fall, the pressure on our budget increases and cannot help but affect the quality of education for our kids."
The union membership is asking for two per cent wage increases annually, similar to public sector contracts already ratified by support staff at post-secondary, health care and government service unions. Details of how those wage increases will be funded have yet to be released. Three days of bargaining between CUPE and the BC Public School Employers' Association are set for Jan. 16-18 in Vancouver.
"It's important that there be a comprehensive bargain, not just language changes and what the employer wants, our members expect wage increases," said Bill Pegler, CUPE BC's K-12 sector co-ordinator.
"We believe that there's a lot of good will in terms of wanting to get an agreement. We don't have control over the savings plan process, its timing, or how it's going to evolve. Our expectation is that when the employers association comes to the table it's going to have the ability to bargain and have what other public sectors have had -- the ability to come to a settlement."