North Island MLA Claire Trevena and Official Opposition Spokesperson for Education Rob Fleming held an open community discussion at Banners Restaurant Monday to address the current state of Education in our province – a topic on many people’s minds in our community after the recent vote by the School District 72 (SD72) Board of Education to close both Discovery Passage and Oyster River Elementary.
Fleming told those assembled that while this community’s concerns are understandable and very real, they certainly aren’t unique. Underfunding of public education province-wide is leading to similar scenarios playing out all over B.C. these days, he said.
Fleming has been touring the province recently as the NDP education critic to hear people’s concerns surrounding public education, and while the specific difficulties being encountered in each region may differ, “all of them have one common denominator, and that’s that B.C.’s funding system for K-12 public education has fallen from second best in Canada when this government assumed office to second worst, and there are a lot of consequences that flow from that.”
Put simply, Fleming said, the choices the government makes in allocation of resources reflect its values, and the current government has shown it simply doesn’t value education.
“The government gets to make choices every budget year,” he said. “It gets to represent its values every provincial budget, and they found $235 million for tax cuts (in the most recent budget proposal) for the top two per cent of earners in B.C. In other words, a billion dollars over the next four years will go to tax cuts at the top and we’ve got a $54-million cut for public education.”
Brenda Leigh, who sits on the board of the Strathcona Regional District as the elected representative for Area D – where the now-slated-for-closure Oyster River Elementary is situated – disagreed somewhat with Fleming on where the problem lies, however, instead placing a great deal of blame for our local situation on the SD72 Board of Education itself.
“I don’t think you can blame it all on the Liberal government,” Leigh said.
“I don’t completely buy the argument that there’s not enough money in the school system. This school district has a $62.5 million budget proposed this year. That is a lot of money they’re playing with. To keep Oyster River school open would’ve cost them seven-tenths of one per cent of their entire budget this year.”
Michele Babchuk, who sat as chair of the Board of Education before being elected to city council in the last municipal election, pointed out to Leigh that while the district’s budget on paper may, indeed, be in the $60-million range, the board doesn’t have a say in where most of it goes, so to claim they could just shave one per cent somewhere to save a school isn’t realistic – or even entirely accurate.
“From having been involved with the school district for so long, one of the things that has become very apparent,” Babchuck said, “is not only is there a lack of money, but that at the local level there’s also a lack of autonomy. So while Director Leigh can talk about $62 million or $50 million, the actual amount of money that school districts have the ability to massage or play with is probably about 10 per cent of that. Everything else is mandated,” she said, citing many kinds of restrictions and mandates on funding allocations put in place by the government.
“I really get tired of that numbers game,” Babchuk said. “Anybody can spew out a whole pile of numbers and tell you exactly how those numbers should come together,” she said, but the long and short of it, in Babchuk’s view, is that the provincial government has placed making money above educating our children in their priority list.
“It’s about efficiencies. It’s about them saving a buck. They have totally annihilated public education, in my experience, and until we get a government in there that actually sees some value in the public education system, this isn’t going away anytime soon, people.”
And that was Fleming and Trevena’s overarching message of the day, as well – reminding people that there is an election coming up next year.
“(The Liberals) know that they’re causing real pain in communities right across B.C. with the loss of schools … The cost of everything goes up every year, and the fact that public education gets no appreciable increase – not even to the rate of inflation – is unjustifiable. There should be a funding bump in this budget, and if they won’t do it … well, we’re a year away from an election,” Fleming said.