Last week's column about how a wage hike for CUPE will likely be funded appeared to touch a nerve with a number of school trustees and teachers, who descended upon me on social media (notably Twitter) to say how unfair the whole situation is.
The funding situation for B.C. schools is indeed unfair in many ways, but it doesn't lessen the likelihood that school boards will have to dig into their budgets to give their employees a pay raise.
Nevertheless, it's important to examine whether school funding has fallen short over the past decade, or whether it has kept pace with mounting cost pressures.
Every year, the provincial government likes to boast it has increased the average rate of funding-per-pupil. It now stands at about $8,600 per student, an increase of 37 per cent since 2001.
And school districts' operating budgets now total more than $4.7 billion, a 27 per cent hike since 2001.
On paper, this all looks significant and it appears the funding arrows are pointing the right way: upwards. And these increases have taken place even while student enrolment has declined by 72,000 in the last decade, a significant reduction.
But school trustees have their own numbers, and they are not as positive. In fact, it's hard to square the two opposing views in any meaningful way.
School districts such as Vancouver have compiled a list of cost pressures they claim are not "funded" by the dollars-per-student funding model.
For example, the Vancouver school board estimates inflation alone has added $10 million to its budget over the last decade. Employee benefit improvements (including teachers' pension changes and higher MSP premiums) have added a further $37 million and collective agreement wage hikes have added $58 million.
There are other cost items as well, but the VSB puts its own funding "shortfall" for this year compared to its situation in 2002 at about $47 million. A two-per-cent hike for CUPE would cost an additional $2 million or so.
Northern and rural school districts have other cost pressures. Heating costs are a bigger and more expensive issue in places like Prince George and Prince Rupert than in, say, Victoria. As well, rising bus costs are a bigger headache in Williams Lake than in Burnaby.
One Prince George teacher, who read last week's column with some despair, wrote to me to recount some of the challenges he encounters in his district.
"While no two districts are alike," wrote Glen Thielmann, "we have also seen a sharp increase in the amount of vulnerable, at-risk and special designation students in our classroom, coupled with downloaded parenting costs such as meal programs, afterschool supervision, and community transitions/support programs designed to develop basic skills and maintain safety of kids."
His description sounds like the current funding levels aren't getting the job done.
To meet these rising costs, boards have pursued different options when it comes to service cuts or resource reductions over the years.
Teaching and librarian positions have been axed by varying degrees, and books and supplies have also been chopped. In some schools, the heat is turned down at times to save money. Parents find themselves having to fork over more money for their kids to purchase what's needed in the classroom.
Now the cutting exercise is about to begin again, CUPE wage hike or no CUPE wage hike.
School trustees have been vocal in their protests about funding levels for years now, but there are no signs they've been able to persuade the provincial government to provide much more money for the system.
In fact, the B.C. Liberals have been reelected three times since trustees and the B.C. Teachers Federation started complaining about so-called underfunding of the education system. The K-12 education system simply has failed to register as a ballot box question in elections.
Compounding the matter is that the B.C. Liberals no doubt view protests led by the BCTF and school trustees with direct ties to the NDP as being mostly political in nature, and therefore easier to dismiss.
That's why the next school year will see a repeat of what we're seeing now: the government will boast that it has increased education funding and school boards will cry foul, and both sides will appear to be correct.
Keith.Baldrey@globalbc. news Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.
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