ELECTION 2014: Central Okanagan trustee election puts spotlight on local boards

District of Lake Country: Not easy for school boards to balance the budget but School Act says do it, or else

When the Cowichan Valley School District decided it could not balance its budget in 2012, the nine-member board submitted a deficit budget to the provincial government.

Shortly thereafter the entire board was let go, fired by the provincial government and replaced by a one member board, a superintendent from another district.

Under the B.C. government’s School Act, it’s illegal for school boards to submit a deficit budget. It’s a struggle every year but in the Central Okanagan, the board has always found ways to submit a balanced budget.

“What our board has always done, long before I was on the board, is always balance the budget and very clearly keep a record of the cuts and changes we have had to make so we have that information when we meet with the minister or our MLA,” said Central Okanagan Board of Education chairwoman Moyra Baxter. “It’s never come up in our district because when you are sworn in as a school trustee, part of that is to uphold the School Act, so as far as I’m concerned, you have to balance the budget or you have to resign.”

Not that balancing the budget is easy. In its last budget, the Central Okanagan School Board was tasked with cutting $4 million from its operating budget and made a variety of moves (see sidebar), including reducing the amount of money spent on technology in the district and increasing rental fees to user groups.

Baxter said budget time is never fun.

“It’s quite frustrating because the government’s response is always ‘we’ve put more money into education this year,'” she said. “And that’s true. What I try to make people understand is that they haven’t given us less money. It’s just not enough money to cover the costs that have been downloaded onto us.”

This past year’s teachers’ dispute did little to improve what can be an acrimonious relationship between boards of education and the province. In the summer of 2013, the provincial government abruptly fired the board of directors for the B.C. Public School Employer’s Association, the provincial body that represents school districts in province-wide bargaining between teachers and school boards. The BCPSEA typically sits at the negotiating table in contract talks with teachers. But after the government fired the board, it appointed one trustee and, according to Baxter, basically took over negotiations with teachers.

“There’s no doubt our board was not pleased with that and to be honest the whole bargaining session was between the government and the BC Teachers’ Federation (with no input from school boards),” said Baxter. “It was very public and back and forth and it wasn’t the sort of bargaining one would hope would take place. It was very acrimonious and as a board we had very little influence on anything that happened. The decision was out of our hands and it was very frustrating. In the end the relationships at the district level suffered and the boards of education are trying to rebuild those relationships.”

In Cowichan Valley, voters will once again elect a school board this year after its last board was fired. Five of the nine trustees in that district are running again.

Cuts in the school board’s most recent budget, to trim $4 in programs

1.    Reduce Technology Allocation                                                                       $   250,000

2.    Reduce Directors, Asst. Supt., Supt Discretionary Budgets                          $     50,000

3.    Reduce Hollywood Road/Learning Centre Budgets                                      $     50,000

4.    Reduce Budget to Operations Department                                                    $   120,000

5.    Reduce Additional Resource Allocation to Schools                                       $   500,000

6.    Reduce Per Pupil Funding Level to Schools                                                  $1,300,000

7.    Eliminate Budget Increases for Inflation                                                         $   180,000

8.    Apply Expected Ministry Holdback Distribution from the Spring of 2014      $   400,000

(Any shortfall to be supplemented by 2013-2014 surplus)

9.    Apply 50% of the Projected Ministry Holdback for 2014-2015                      $1,200,000

10.  Increase Rental Fees to User Groups by 5%                                                 $     23,000

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