VSB using BCTF-court settlement funds to avert big budget cuts next year

The VSB was expected to be at least $15 million short for next year’s budget, but thanks to the BCTF court win and elected board’s past decisions, it’s getting more money and fewer cuts.

The VSB's acting secretary treasurer Guy Bonnefoy (left) is proposing using BCTF court-case settlement funds to pay for 100 teachers that were already on VSB staff, freeing up millions to cover the district's budget shortfall. Government-appointed trustee Dianne Turner (right) is scheduled to vote on Bonnefoy's proposal on April 26. Photo: Patti Bacchus

Parents, students and Vancouver School Board (VSB) staff can, for the most part, breathe a sigh of relief there won’t be major budget cuts next year.  

They can thank the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) and the fired, elected board for that.

Before we were axed last fall, the superintendent warned we were facing a shortfall of at least $15 million and said we’d need to close several schools in order to balance the 2017/18 operating budget. Then things changed.

First, we got fired for not approving last year’s cuts and replaced by a government-appointed trustee. Then came the BCTF’s massive, landmark victory at the Supreme Court of Canada in November.

That forced the B.C. government to commit to coughing up a $360 million “classroom enhancement fund” (CEF) to cover the cost of complying with the court’s decision.

Last week I wrote about the surprisingly large portion of the CEF that’s going to Vancouver. Although the VSB has less than 10 per cent of the province’s students, its allocation is 16 per cent of the fund, which works out $57.6 million.

That’s a lot more than district staff calculated in 2014 it would take to get back in compliance with the old teachers’ contract language. I wondered what that would mean for the VSB’s budget shortfall and it turns out it means very good news.

Which brings me back to the VSB’s proposed 2017/18 budget announced last night. That $15 million shortfall has been whittled down to $2.13 million, largely thanks to the BCTF-won CEF, which will be used partly to fund 100 teaching positions that were there all along.

You can thank the fired trustees for not cutting as many non-enrolling teachers (librarians, counselors, learning assistance, resource and english-as-a-second language teachers) as we could have over the past few years, as we strived to keep cuts away from students as much as possible.

Even though those 100 teachers and their positions were there all along, their costs can now — according to the VSB — be shifted to the CEF, freeing up millions of dollars to cover the district’s shortfall in other areas. Poof! No school closures required.

According to the acting secretary treasurer’s comments in the Vancouver Sun, he plans to transfer the costs for those 100 non-enrolling teachers we could have cut, but refused to, over the past few years to the CEF.

He can then use the millions in operating funds that used to pay for them to cover most of that projected shortfall, even though it will go to non-teaching costs.

Clever. That’s how the VSB is getting around the rules about how the CEF must be spent and might at least partly explain why government decided to give them the biggest share.

The CEF is great news for the budget-cut-weary VSB but might not go over so well in districts like Richmond that didn’t get such a generous portion and is facing a $10.5 million shortfall and may have cut more non-enrolling teachers than the VSB was willing to. 

I'm concerned, however, about what happens after the election if the B.C. Liberals win. For many reasons of course, but also because I suspect things may be worse than the VSB budget documents — in all their unusual brevity — suggest and there could be some really bad post-election news to come.

The use of the CEF to cover the shortfall is a clever sleight of hand, but what happens later?

There is still some bleak budget news

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some very bleak news in this budget proposal. As I feared when I wrote yesterdays’ column, the VSB’s adult education program that enables people to upgrade high-school courses they need to get into post-secondary programs is proposed to take a devastating hit.

The plan is to close the program that runs out of Gladstone Secondary along with the one at the Gathering Place. That will leave only one site, South Hill, which is much harder to get to by transit than the skytrain-friendly Gladstone location the VSB spent $200,000 renovating two years ago.

It's also ominous for Gladstone, which VSB staff had earlier identified for complete closure. A B.C. Liberal win on May 9 will probably put Gladstone back on the chopping block, sooner rather than later. 

A B.C NDP win is more likely to result in the elected board's reinstatement or a by-election and a reprieve for Gladstone and several other east Vancouver schools government wants closed. 

Those hoping to see programs like the VSB’s elementary band and strings programs restored area also out of luck as there is no plan in the budget proposal to restore anything other than the board’s membership in the B.C. School Trustees’ Association (BCSTA), at an annual cost of $85,000. 

We cancelled that membership a couple of years ago because we didn’t see it bringing value to students the way a full-time teacher could.

By scrapping that membership, we saved a teaching job. I can’t say I ever missed being part of the BCSTA. Frankly I found it spent too much time propping up government positions and too little doing meaningful advocacy.

I attended their annual “trustee academies” and annual general meetings for six years. I enjoyed mingling and meeting with other trustees, but I balked at the expense (conference registration and costs were on top of the membership fee) knowing schools were going without so much and parents were holding bake sales to pay for basics.

I choked a little on this statement in the VSB budget documents rationalizing the membership: “Shifting a good portion of advocacy to the provincial level will assist the board in focusing its efforts on educational outcomes at the local level.”

I’m sure those are welcome words to government, but if I ever get re-elected to the school board I know what I’ll be voting to cut first.

This dates for the year’s VSB budget consultation are posted here. The government-appointed trustee is scheduled to “vote” on the budget on April 26.  


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