Government Education Cuts Come Under Fire
Prince George, B.C. – People who care passionately about the state of education in BC turned out at CNC Monday night to voice, unanimously, their concern that the agenda of the present Liberal government is doing incalculable harm to education at the public school, college and university levels.
The “Education North” Forum, organized by CUPE, was attended by people from all walks of life: parents, educators, CNC senior management, members of the Board of Governors of CNC and for UNBC, school trustees, members of the Parent Advisory Committee and District Parent Advisory Committee, support workers from District 57, the College and University and concerned citizens. They were there to discuss budgetary shortfalls, underfunding and program cutbacks resulting from what they believe to be the government’s mishandling of the Education and Advanced Education ministries for several years.
Karen Wong, President of CUPE Local 3742 representing District 57 support workers, called this “a really important community event and we’re creating conversation within our community, the community in the north. “In our district alone in the past decade we’ve lost 22 schools. There is absolutely nowhere to cut in our district. The provincial government says you have to submit a balanced budget, which will put our district in another $3.3 million deficit. This is heaped on a decade of shortfalls this district has endured since 2002.”
“So the solution from our government is that famous cut the low-hanging fruit. In School district 57 there is no low-hanging fruit, there’s nothing left to cut, we did that years ago and students and children are suffering for it. I look at our administration staff, our Human Resources department and our managers, and they’re run off their feet, they’re exhausted, I see it in their faces. We’re exhausted too. The whole education system is exhausted.”
Brian Trotter, representing maintenances workers in District 57, says of the 22 schools closed in the district some have been sold, three have been demolished and others re-purposed, “but many just sit there and deteriorate.” The provincial government doesn’t recognize that there are many fixed, non-educational costs that are borne by the district.” He says those include heating, power, life-savings system upkeep, telephone lines, maintaining the grounds and any remaining equipment, snow-clearing in the winter. “The cost of upkeep of these closed schools is not funded by student funding, it comes directly out of the budget of School District 57.”
Parent Janet Bigelow says “it’s time to speak out. When our children were sick we didn’t think twice about advocating to get them the medical care they needed. This is no different, this is their livelihood, their education, their future. And I think as a parent we need to speak out and let these elected officials know that we mean business and that we will not stop until they listen.”
She says the government’s Bill 11 is an anti-democratic attack on education which negates the voters’ decision of the last election. “Back in November we worked hard to make sure we elected the school trustees we wanted there to fight for our communities. You know what this bill is all about? If they don’t do what this government says they’re supposed to do, if they stand up and say no we cannot balance the budget, we need more money from you, they’re going to walk in, get rid of the people that you had elected and put people in there that say what they want them to say. That’s what Bill 11 is about.”
Lily Bachand, representing operational staff at CNC, says “we are facing a $2.8 million deficit in the 2015-16 fiscal (year). Unfortunately we have a possibility of another $2 million deficit for the nest fiscal. According to this government we need a balanced budget.” She says CNC’s satellite campuses across the region helps “to make education more accessible to people in rural areas. Program cuts threaten accessibility of education to the northern population. If training is not provided to these local communities it will remain a challenge to attract skilled professionals to come and work in the north and more important, to stay in the north.”
The Vice-President of the UNBC Faculty Association, Erik Jensen, says the recent strike by faculty at the university was about the future of education in northern BC in terms “building capacity in these communities, keeping young people in the communities, building new businesses and strengthening our communities.” He says “we’re really seeing the long-term effects of these slow, deliberate cuts every year. A few percent here, a few percent there, it’s really caused a lot of difficulties in terms of our structure at the university.”
Jensen says it has become difficult to do any long-term planning adding “education is a long-term endeavor, taking kids from the K-12 system on to the college or university system. You’re talking the better part of maybe 20 years that their lives are in these systems. I think we have to get the message to our politicians that they really have to think about the long-term health of our communities.”
School District 57 Board Chair Tony Cable told the gathering “a number of the school district trustees are in attendance tonight because we have a real problem with these cuts. I’m a former teacher and principal and I’ve spent 35 years in this system, and I’ve seen the cuts first-hand. Some of our students have spent 12 years and don’t know anything else but the cuts in education and that’s not right.”
“As a new board we were really hoping that after a bitter teachers’ strike and all sorts of problems in education, we thought this would be the year that things would stabilize. We weren’t looking for increases but were just hoping that at least things would stay status quo and we could start planning and we could look after the education of the students. But no, that didn’t happen and it’s a real problem.”
Cable outlined the problems the district and the board are dealing with. “We are looking at $3.3 million that we have to find somewhere in the system. We hear all the time, trustees why don’t you just go and tell the government that we can’t do the cuts, and that’s it. What’s going to happen is what happened in Lake Cowichan. The next day the board will be fired, a man will be brought in, a woman, to look after all the cuts and they’ll do exactly what the government wants. There will be no local decision-making or local input.”
“So that’s a real big decision this board has to make, and we’re leaning towards working with all the partners to try to make these cuts but listening to the local people and trying to see how we can do it in with as less a problem as we can find. We’d like to keep the cuts as far away from the classrooms and schools as we can, if that’s possible.”
“We have been told that we have to find $727,000 in administrative cuts. Not sure how that’s going to be done. And then they said oh by the way, maybe next year you could also find $626,000. So we’ve got further cuts next year. So that’s $1.3 million in just that one area.”
“What really made me upset was $27 million was cut from public education in British Columbia, and in the same breath the government said we’re going to give $30 million additional funding to private schools. Now I don’t have any issue with private schools, they serve a function. But my job and our trustees’ job is to be advocates for the public system. We want a quality, free education system and its getting harder and harder to do that with a lack of funding.”
Richard Giroday, who taught in the system here for 26 years, posed several questions. “Why does the Minister of Education claim continuously that underfunding is a myth? Why do trustees who have to look within their budgets to find cuts across this province speak out to stop the underfunding? Why do teachers speak out to stop the underfunding? Why does a child who has some difficulties in Grade 1 have to wait till Grade 4 or 5 to be tested to determine what those difficulties are? What’s driving this government’s agenda? Who is driving this government’s agenda?”
“Why does it continue to underfund education? And why does the government have to enact laws that empower the Minister of Education with complete control to dismiss boards and appoint a public administrator that’s hand-picked by the minister? Why is it necessary in our democratic system for the minister to have that kind of power?”
There were many other speakers who questioned why the government has an agenda to impoverish education, who stated that education adds value to our society. And it appears momentum is building toward a very vocal and visible protest against the government’s lack of funding for education and spending priorities. A public campaign will be rolled out in the near future.