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Nothing left to cut, Comox Valley trustees tell education minister

A letter asking school districts to find extra money in their already-tight budgets has left Comox Valley trustees unimpressed.

Education Minister Don McRae, who is also the Comox Valley MLA and a former Comox Valley teacher, sent a letter to all school board chairs in the province earlier this month asking them to find savings in their budgets equivalent to 1.5 per cent of support staff compensation in their respective districts by mid-January.

The money would be used for CUPE support staff wage increases at the bargaining table as per the government's Cooperative Gains Mandate; the mandate states public sector employee wage increases must come at no new cost, but by finding efficiencies within existing funds.

According to School District 71 secretary treasurer Russell Horswill, to meet the minister's request the district would need to find $106,000 in savings for the 2012/13 budget, and he noted the year is already about halfway over.

The letter states the savings cannot "negatively impact the delivery of educational programming for students" and, during Tuesday's Board of Education meeting, finance committee chair Rick Grinham asked aloud if McRae was "kidding" after reading that part of the letter.

"We went through quite a process in our budget (2012/13) and we actually cut a number of things to balance our budget," said Grinham. "And we're just projecting right now that we're going to have to do a budget adjustment for 2013/14, and there's going to be some cuts because there's some demands on financing and some other expectations for costs, so this really is not doable."

Horswill also told trustees a subsequent conference call revealed the ministry would like districts to find savings totalling 1.5 per cent of support staff compensation in the 2013/14 budget.

He added teachers are due to bargain under the Cooperative Gains Mandate soon — their contract expires at the end of the school year — which could mean a request to find further savings to pay for teacher wage increases. Horswill then outlined some numbers assuming the same savings would need to be found for teachers starting with the 2013/2014 budget.

"So overall the effect on our budget, if this Cooperative Gains Mandate would apply, based on the Minister's letter and subsequent follow-up, is $106,000 in this year, about $709,000 in 13/14 and about $1 million in 14/15," Horswill told trustees. "What's important to point out is the mandate does not allow a reduction in services, people, personnel, we're not allowed to transfer costs to the public, we're not allowed to have any form of reduction.

"Our total non-payroll budget is about $11 million dollars and so if we start applying those percentages into the $11 million it's quite a difficult exercise."

These savings could be found in operational cost reductions, increased efficiencies, service redesign, increases in revenue and other initiatives, suggested the letter.

Horswill added possible efficiencies have already been looked at closely, leaving "not a lot, if any, low-hanging fruit" in the district's budget.

Board of Education vice-chair Janice Caton made a motion to write a letter back to McRae expressing the board's concerns and stating that it won't be able to find the savings.

"This is not doable and I really, really am not happy with the Ministry of Education downloading — that's what I call it — downloading wages and increases for employees on boards when it's their responsibility."

In a follow-up interview with McRae on Wednesday, he stressed the letter is a request.

"Some people are portraying this as a demand from me to the districts — it's an ask," he said. "It's an ask, not a demand."

He pointed out other public sectors, such as health, have been able to find savings for employee wage increases, and he said he believes some school districts will, too.

The letter also states the BC Public School Employers' Association will discuss a "benefits and disability management modernization initiative " with support staff unions to free up some more money.

"We just don't have any money," said McRae of the Province.

During the meeting, Board of Education Chair Tom Weber noted districts appear "unanimous in their disapproval" of the request and that the BC School Trustees' Association is collecting feedback from individual education boards to form a united front on the matter.

He also made clear the board's position on finding savings is not a comment on whether support staff or teachers should receive wage increases.

Caton's motion to send a letter to McRae was passed unanimously.

writer@comoxvalleyrecord.com

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