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Burnaby school board eyes cutting 40 teacher positions to cover $12.4M shortfall

Proposed plan includes cutting 40 teaching and 20 support-staff positions to make up for lingering financial impact of COVID-19
The Burnaby school district is proposing $6.5 million in cuts to help cover a projected $12.4-million budget shortfall next year.

“Don’t cut deeper than is needed.”

That's the message from local education assistants, custodians and other school support staff to the Burnaby school board as it ponders ways to cover an anticipated $12.4-million budget shortfall next year.

"Sometimes they go deeper than needed, and then it's ‘Oh look, we found the money.’ Consider the impact on the students and the staff,” said Paul Simpson, president of CUPE 379, the union that represents support staff in the Burnaby school district.

At a public budget meeting last week, the district unveiled a plan that would see the district dip into its accumulated surplus to cover about half the shortfall and a list of proposed budget cuts that would cover the remaining $6.55 million.

Among the possible cuts are the equivalent of 40 teaching positions and about 20 support staff positions.

Burnaby Teachers’ Association president Daniel Tétrault said the teacher cuts will hurt “across the board,” impacting specialty programs and the district's most vulnerable students.

“They mean larger classrooms, less one-on-one time, less extra support when kids have challenges,” Tétrault said in an emailed statement. “Budget cuts mean fewer overall supports for students in a time where they will need it more than ever. They are not just numbers; they represent people, including teachers who provide an invaluable service to our students, and we know that next year our kids need more not less.”

Simpson agreed.

He said education assistants are already “understaffed and overworked.”

“The scariest piece is, when the support staff get cut, it is usually the most vulnerable that are left behind because that is primarily where our members support,” Simpson said.

He also questioned eliminating the equivalent of four custodians, another cut proposed in the plan.

“Everyone knows COVID’s not going to magically disappear by September, so having a lack of touchpoint cleaning being done by custodial services is potentially more than even just job loss,” Simpson said. “You’re talking the health and wellness of an entire school community.”

But the cuts aren’t written in stone yet, according to school board chair Jen Mezei.

“We’re kind of in the middle of the process still,” she told the NOW.

The school district expects to end this year with $13 million in reserve funds, and Mezei said the board hasn’t decided how deeply it wants to cut into that fund to cover the shortfall.

She said the board is also open to other suggestions on how to fill the gap.

“We really do value the input that our partners give us,” she said. “What’s really important about the consultation is that these decisions will really affect teachers, support staff, students and families directly, and we really want to hear from them before we make these decisions.”

Groups representing teachers, support staff, parents and students met with district officials Tuesday night to discuss the proposed cuts.

And there’s another meeting scheduled next week with the district parent advisory council before the 2021/22 budget is finalized at a finance committee meeting on May 18 and sent to a May 25 public board meeting for final approval.

Secretary-treasurer Russell Horswill said the projected shortfall is largely the result of some anticipated lingering impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The district doesn’t expect any extra pandemic-related funding from the provincial or federal governments next year, according to Horswill, but COVID-19 is nonetheless expected to keep regular enrolment flat and international student enrolment below pre-COVID levels.

The pandemic is also expected to impact the district’s summer school program, continuing education and investment income, Horswill said.

Even with $6.5 million in cuts next year, he said the district’s reserves would only hold out for another two years before the district was $3.25 million in the red in 2023/24.

Follow Cornelia Naylor on Twitter @CorNaylor