Minister of Education responds to SD72 concerns

Board being forced to ‘look into a crystal ball’ to guess how to budget for pay increases

The Campbell River School District (SD72) has received official responses to a pair of letters sent last school year to the provincial government, but trustees say the responses – to one of the letters in particular – show that Education Minister Mike Bernier just doesn’t get it.

In the first letter received by the board, presented at their first public meeting of the new school year last week, Bernier acknowledged of the district declining the money that was offered by the government to keep Oyster River and Discovery Passage open. The government had offered the district $409,377 in Rural Education Enhancement Fund money to keep the schools open – which was over $500,000 short of what was needed to continue to operate those facilities. The board has received this letter and thanks the minister for acknowledging the reasons for closing the schools were not purely financial.

In the second letter, however, which was actually in response to the SD72’s letter to Minister of Finance Mike de Jong, Bernier addressed the board’s letter requesting the government make education funding more predictable for districts so they can actually budget effectively.

“I thought that in terms of the point the board was trying to make to the minister – that we need some predictability in terms of funding – he really completely missed the point of the letter,” said Trustee Richard Franklin. “He talks about ‘a rational, consistent and technically sound approach to setting compensation,’ and it’s so rational that, in some cases, excluded staff salaries are frozen here, but if they went to an equivalent position somewhere else, they’d be able to get a raise. How rational is that?”

Trustee John Kerr agrees.

“In the letter that we sent, we expressed that we feel if the government bodies approve a raise, they should fund it,” Kerr said, addressing the staff raise that was granted by the government, but then not funded, forcing districts to find the additional wage money within their existing budgets to fund it.

“I have a real concern about that,” Kerr continued. “If the people who provide the money give you approval to increase the compensation to people who haven’t had compensation increases for seven years or more, then it’s incumbent upon them to provide those funds, rather than say ‘okay, but take it from somewhere else in your budget.’ Our budgets are already stretched so thin and now we’re being forced into making difficult choices either way. We could have not approved these (raises) and had the money available for other educational things or approve them and have to come up with that money from somewhere else in the budget.”

Franklin also pointed out that the board should now expect that future pay increases will not be funded, either, and when they make their annual budgets, they will have to “look into a crystal ball and guess what these increases will be, and set aside that amount of money in order to pay those increases so we don’t have to upset the apple cart mid-year to pay amounts of money that we have no idea what they it is going to be,” because, “really, the board no longer has the ability to negotiate with its employees. It’s all done by the government appointed people at the BCPSEA (BC Public School Employers’ Association).”

Board chair Susan Wilson said the district does have an opportunity to express these concerns again at the upcoming Provincial Select Standing Committee on Finance meeting, and she has applied to do so.

“I think if we are accepted to make a presentation, it would be a really good opportunity to reply or respond to some of the points that were brought up in those previous letters, to show some appreciation for some of the funding that is being released by the government to the districts – such as the Student Transportation Fund – but also to reiterate some of our specific concerns,” Wilson told the board, adding that they would begin to put together a presentation in hopes of being accepted to speak, since waiting for approval before starting may not leave them enough time before the Oct. 6 meeting in Courtenay to properly prepare everything they want to say.

They should know before the next public meeting of the Board of Education, scheduled for next Tuesday, Sept. 27, whether they will be approved to speak before the committee next month.

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