The provincial Education Ministry is asking school districts across B.C. to find savings to help pay for wage increases for school support staff, and the request has the Burnaby Teachers' Association president shaking his head and the district's secretary-treasurer wondering where to make cuts.
"The trustees and people like secretary-treasurers around the province are shocked," said Burnaby Teachers' Association president James Sanyshyn. "Their jaws are all on the ground. They don't even know what to say. They're just absolutely horrified, and some districts are piping up right away and saying, 'Get lost,' like Victoria, for example."
On Dec. 3, Education Minister Don McRae sent a letter to B.C.'s school boards, including Burnaby, outlining the savings plans needed to support collective bargaining with the education sector's support staff, which is set to start in January. The government is trying to balance the budget amidst demand from public sector employees for higher pay, and McRae is asking that school districts find savings of 1.5 per cent of support staff compensation, to help with government flexibility in funding wage increases.
According to McRae's letter, the savings "must not negatively impact the delivery of educational programming for students," and the deadline for boards to have savings plans ready is mid-January. Despite the term "mandate," the Education Ministry has stressed that this is a request to school boards, not a demand.
"I recognize that boards of education also face fiscal pressures at this time and have varying capacity to generate savings," McRae wrote, acknowledging that finding savings will be very difficult in some cases.
Burnaby's support staff are represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 379, and president Paul Simpson thinks it's not possible for Burnaby to find the money.
"The bottom line is the school districts can't find savings when they are already underfunded," Simpson said. "No districts can find savings without cutting."
Support staff includes education assistants and maintenance, custodial and clerical staff - everyone except teachers and district administration.
According to Greg Frank, secretary-treasurer of the Burnaby school district, that 1.5 per cent target equates to $600,000 in the first year and $1.2 million in the second.
"It's a challenge for Burnaby," Frank said. "Our three-year budget projection right now is showing a shortfall for 2013/14 of $6.1 million. This would add to that pressure. We have got other cost pressures, such as a recently announced increase in the teachers' pension plan. That item alone will add another $1.5 million to our budget pressures."
Frank said it would be difficult in identifying areas that could be cut.
"Most districts in the province, including Burnaby, have been making a number of budget reductions in recent years, and have very few places left to go to make further reductions," he said.
As for whether Burnaby will comply, that's up to the elected board, and the newly appointed chair, Baljinder Narang, is still adjusting to the news.
"The government has brought this on out of the blue. We have no idea, we had no expectations, there was no collaboration, no kind of consultation or any process," Narang said. "Suddenly, we've been given a deadline for Jan. 15. It's overwhelming, and for us to realistically say we are going to do it is really hard."
Burnaby's budget planning process takes place from January to April, and Narang would like the Education Ministry to extend the deadline.
The board has not yet taken any official stance on the government's request, partly because of the timing and the fact some trustees are away for the holidays.
"We are doing the first step in writing to the minister and putting forward our case and saying we are not able to submit a program," Narang said, adding that the Burnaby school board was working with the B.C. School Trustees Association, which takes school boards' concerns to the province.
Association president Michael McEvoy sent a letter to McRae in response to the request, stating that "districts have very, if any, wherewithal to generate savings of three per cent over two years as proposed."
Following McRae's initial letter, there was a conference call with board chairs, and according to McEvoy, a ministry representative informed them that the savings target was 1.5 for two years, which is tantamount to three per cent.
"During the course of that conference call the ministry representative said we're looking for 1.5 per cent in this year, that is to say half-way through this year, and an additional 1.5 per cent in the following fiscal year," McEvoy told the NOW. "Somebody in the meeting said, 'It doesn't say that in the letter. Do you intend to correct that or put that in the letter?' and the response from the ministry was, 'No, you now know, we have told you that.' So that's what happened."
The Education Ministry also confirmed with the NOW that the savings target is 1.5 over two years.