Minister of Education Don McRae has apologized to school boards for the way he handled a request to find savings in local budgets, pledging to meet with trustees to find a cooperative way forward.
His original request to have boards find 1.5 per cent in savings this year, sent to all school boards just before the Christmas break, was met with frustration and sparked a strongly worded letter from School District No. 46 (SD46) trustees.
The request was meant to help fund a wage hike for support staff through a model referred to as the cooperative gains mandate. Through the gains mandate, cost savings outside the collective agreement need to be found to fund any contract improvements.
"It is unrealistic to think that partway through our current budget year we can suddenly identify savings through increased revenues, collective agreement trade-offs or efficiencies and service redesigns that we haven't already realized," board chair Silas White wrote on behalf of SD46 trustees. "Substantial cuts to operations, meanwhile, would contravene the mandate's principle regarding service level reductions."
He also talked about the "most unbelievable part" of the request - the timing - as boards were given just six weeks to find the savings.
SD46 trustees urged other school districts to write to the Minister with their concerns, and many did.
"We support fair wage increases for both support staff and teachers. However, we urge government to fund its mandate through savings found in other areas of government without reducing services to taxpayers," Powell River school board chair Dr. Jeanette Scott wrote on behalf of her board. "We are disappointed that government has intentionally put school districts in a position to be 'whipsawed' in this round of negotiations. This mandate may be effective in other sectors, but is ill-advised for a sector where most boards have been forced to reduce their budget every year."
McRae spoke with reporters recently about the letters he's been receiving.
"Now I'm getting letters back, which are fair enough; I want to find out their answers and their thoughts. But we do want to work together and see, is there a possibility to have some cooperative gains mandate for the CUPE [Canadian Union of Public Employees] negotiations moving forward?" McRae said in an audio clip sent to Coast Reporter by Ministry staff. "The next step is we take the information in, we'll be talking with BCPSEA [British Columbia Public School Employers' Association], we'll be talking with the school board of trustees association to see what they wish to do next. But again it's a co-governance model.
"The Ministry of Education works with the school board and the school board trustees, and we want to make sure we do the best for our students and our schools. We have great employees both at the teaching level and at the aid level and support networks. So we want to make sure that the school system is strong for all."
White was encouraged by the Minister's commitment to talk with trustees.
"We are pleased with the unity demonstrated by boards in the province, the BCSTA's [British Columbia School Trustees Association] advocacy, and the Minister's ultimate response," White said. "We definitely want a fair compensation increase for support staff - and for teachers, considering teacher bargaining will begin soon, too. However, due to the decentralization of the government delivery of education in our province, and the large proportion of staffing as a part of district budgets, it is impossible for the province to squeeze any savings for compensation increases from board budgets.
"It is our view that they will need to find the funds at the provincial level."
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