The Kootenay Lake School Board has told the provincial government they’re in a difficult deficit position and lack the funds to pay for wage increases to CUPE support staff.
Earlier this month, the Ministry of Education asked the local board to find savings within its current budget to pay for upped wages. After careful consideration, the Kootenay Lake chair Mel Joy issued a letter on behalf of the board stating they cannot meet a target of 1.5 per cent savings in an already stretched 2012-2013 fiscal year — a $150,000 extra charge on a budget already in place.
Boards are required by the BC School Act to balance their budgets which adds to the difficulty of this decision, said Joy.
“It’s a tough decision because we have our legislated duties and we take our fiscal responsibility very seriously,” she told the Nelson Star. “Where do you find a $150,000? It’s a lot of money.”
Joy said the district wants to provide employees fair compensation, but this is hard to do considering other additional cost pressures already hitting the Kootenay Lake School District this year. These include an unfunded Anti-Bullying/Violence Threat Risk Assessment initiative, Ministry reading initiative, increased WCB and MSP premiums and a significantly increased mid-September enrolment.
Before adding in a two-year total of $330,000 to pay for CUPE wages, the board has also identified a deficit in its budget of $1.3 million in 2013-2014. This means the deficit position would continue unless money is found at the expense of educational programing to students and services to staff and families, said Joy.
“When there’s such a large amount, like $330,000, there’s no way within our school district budget that we can find that amount without affecting services. It was an unfair ask, we thought, that the ministry was putting us in that position,” she said.
The board considered the ministry’s request at three meetings. Joy said staff did come up with suggestions as to where to find the savings, but by the time they met on December 18, they knew none of these options were viable.
“We took this very seriously. It wasn’t an outright no from the very beginning, although we were very concerned as to what this would mean,” she said. “By the time the third meeting came, we knew there was just no way we could find that money. That’s when we passed the motion to send a letter forward to the ministry.”
About a decade ago, the Kootenay Lake Board operated at a deficit and Joy said her board doesn’t want that to happen again.
“It’s a very difficult place to be,” she said. “We work really hard to provide the services for our students and district within our budget. I can’t express how serious our board takes this.”
This summer, the Minister of Education fired Cowichan Valley School Board’s nine trustees after they failed to submit a balanced budget. The Vancouver Island School district passed their deficit budget with a $3.7 million shortfall in May, 2012.
This was the fourth time a BC school board was dismissed for failing to balance their budget in 40 years.
Joy’s been on the Kootenay Lake School Board for seven years and the budget has been balanced every year. This year will be no different, she said.
“We aren’t saying that we aren’t going to balance our budget. We’re going to balance our budget. We will do that. There’s no guessing there,” she said.
Joy knows there are several boards in the province that are similarly struggling with the Ministry of Education request.
“We’re not alone,” she said. “How the ministry is going to deal with it, I don’t know.”
Joy says she and her board will continue to work with government to find ways to balance cost pressures with providing quality education. But for now, the ball is in their court.
“The ministry should have some responsibility as well to find the money that’s needed if there’s going to be a wage increase,” she said.