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North Vancouver school trustees vote down budget

Cuts to specialist teacher positions focus of concerns

School district staff have their pencils and calculators out again this week after the North Vancouver board of education defeated the $182 million budget for the next school year in a 3-3 vote Tuesday.

The three trustees who voted against the budget – Megan Higgins, Barry Forward and Jessica Stanley – said they couldn’t support it because of concerns about cuts to specialized learning support teachers and counsellors. They asked staff to consider cuts elsewhere, like the $400,000 earmarked for new computer equipment for teachers.

That resulted in some testy exchanges with other trustees who argued staff had done the best they could with the money available.

Board chair Christie Sacre and trustees Franci Stratton and Cyndi Gerlach voted in favour of the budget. Trustee Susan Skinner did not attend the meeting.

The situation is a replay of last year, when trustees also delayed adopting the budget for a week over concerns about cuts to specialist teacher positions.

The board will hold a second discussion on a revised budget June 27.

Under provincial legislation, school boards must pass a balanced budget by June 30.

Higgins said following the vote that her main concern was “counselling time for elementary school counsellors.” The draft budget proposed cutting the roster by about half a position. “The current caseload for the counsellors is too great,” she said. “We have insufficient counselling support for the current year. Reducing it is very concerning.”

Higgins said she questioned cutting those positions considering the amount of money the school district spends on other priorities like lawyers.

The dissenting trustees also voiced concerns about possible cuts to learning support teachers. The draft budget proposed a cut of six positions – although it is possible some or all of those positions may be reinstated later as a result of a provincial arbitration decision.

Christie Sacre
North Vancouver school board chair Christie Sacre - file photo

Board chair Christie Sacre summed up the debate by saying, “All six of us who are at the table would love to put more energy into mental health and counselling. Three of us accepted that we had to work within a budget.”

Sacre said many of the school district’s vice-principals have learning support skills and perform that role, although they are not officially designated as learning support teachers.

She added cutting money for computer equipment, library books, teacher-mentors or high school science lab technicians – among the possibilities suggested by staff – would just trade one set of problems for another.

Much of the budget debate in the past two years stems from changes to the way specialist teachers are funded by the province. Reinstating the teachers’ union contract language has meant smaller class sizes and limits on the number of special needs students in each class. But it has also meant school psychologists, counsellors, librarians, English language teachers and those who work with special needs students must be paid for from the school district’s general operating budget.

“The decisions that have to be made, they are hard decisions,” superintendent Mark Pearmain told trustees. “There is not just a magic pot of money where you can add this in.”

Parent advocate Karen Nordquist told trustees she was glad passing the budget was halted “for a time of reflection.”

Nordquist said learning support teachers have specialized training to help them teach the core curriculum to students with diverse needs. “They are already spread too thin,” she said.

Nordquist said few parents of students with special needs can come to school board meetings to advocate for their kids. “I’m speaking on their behalf,” she said.