By Daniel Tseghay
On October 17th, BC’s Education Minister, Mike Bernier, fired all nine elected Vancouver School Board (VSB) trustees. The province’s reasoning is that the elected school board failed to pass a balanced budget by the June 30th deadline, violating the School Act. Bernier has now replaced the board with an appointed trustee, a former superintendent, leading many to call the move undemocratic.
The decision follows months of dispute over the budget. In April, the board rejected a budget which would include a shortfall of over $21 billion. When it then refused the government’s insistence that school lands be sold to cover the deficit, and passed the June 30 deadline without resolution, the budget, along with its deep cuts, were automatically implemented.
In recent discussions, Bernier said they could still approve the budget. And, since the board would have to in order to qualify for seismic funding, providing resources to schools in the event of earthquakes, the trustees were set to do so by the evening of October 17.
“The people of Vancouver elected trustees to stand for public education, not to do the provincial government’s dirty work of closing schools, cutting programs, and selling off public assets to address a budget shortfall of their own making,” wrote Mike Lombardi, now-former chair of the VSB. “The Vancouver School Board is now being run out of Premier Christy Clark’s office.”
The board shares these concerns about shortfalls and the inevitable cutbacks with boards across the province. While the provincial government rightfully announced on May 31st that it would give back $25 million (after announcing $54 million in administrative cuts for 2015 and 2016) 31 school districts across the province have shortfalls totally $85 million for this just this year. Funding for public schools has plummeted in the last decade and a half. Currently BC provides $1,000 per student below the national average, making it the second worst in the country. Last year, the VSB had to take out a loan just to pay for the construction of an elementary school because he Ministry of Education wouldn’t provide the $1.6 million needed. Meanwhile, legislation has come forward seeking to save private schools money by exempting them from a variety of taxes. “Funding for independent schools increased by $118 million in the last ten years, from $193 million in 2005–06 to $311 million in 2014–15—an increase of 61.1%,” reads a report published in February by the BC Teachers’ Federation. “In contrast, public schools funding increased by 19.7% over the same period.”
Would a NDP government be any different?
But while many are criticizing the BC Liberals, the BC NDP, despite expressions of outrage from leader John Horgan, is unlikely to radically change these relations between public and private school. In 2012, then-BC NDP leader, Adrian Dix, assured private schools the NDP would not end the public funding of private schools. “That voice that criticizes the government for giving funding to independent schools is getting less and less,” said Peter Froese, executive director of the Federation of Independent School Associations of B.C., in February of this year. “I think the public has seen the quality of education that independent schools are providing and even the NDP will tell you that if they are elected, they will not change that funding model.” The NDP’s education critic, Rob Fleming, confirmed, easing concerns that the party to the left of the Liberals would confront the trend towards gutting public education in favour of private schools. If the BC NDP becomes the governing party in May, we might just see more of the same.
The Crisis continues to grow
As a results of the shortage of funding, public schools throughout the province closed their doors permanently and, increasingly, “parents…fundraise for things like playgrounds, classroom technology and hot lunches, and…pay a growing array of fees for field trips, supplies and transportation,” according to Alex Hemingway of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. “Teachers continue to subsidize school funding by paying large sums out-of-pocket for classroom supplies”.
On September 15th, the BC Government announced a budget surplus of more than $1.9 billion. Putting a lot more of that money in public education would mean smaller classes, specialized education for students with special needs, and updated textbooks and equipment. It would mean a lot less stress for working people who have to really on public education in a province with one of the worst child poverty rates in Canada. It would mean better wages and job security for BC’s teachers.
The Education Minister’s decision to fire an entire school board while it was on the cusp of accepting its already-insulting budget is a signal. It tells us what this province thinks of public education and what other school boards might expect if they also resist school closures, cutbacks, and the political parties which support them.