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Maple Ridge school board bucks Victoria’s request

Trustees with the Ridge Meadows School Board are balking at Education Minister Don McRae’s request that the board find operational savings equal to 1.5 per cent of support staff compensation in the district over the next two years.

In a Dec. 3 letter to board chairs across the province, McRae explained the government’s goal is to balance the budget while still allowing public sector workers to negotiate wage increases, as part of a policy it calls a Cooperative Gains Mandate.

Trustee Susan Carr noted the board has closed two schools, and has been diligent in finding savings while trying not to impact students.

“The amount they are asking us to come up with – it is going to affect the public. It is going to affect kids,” she said.

Trustee Kathy Marshall agreed that all the fat has been trimmed from the district, and any further cuts will impact students.

She called the letter from McRae “one of the stupidest things we have ever received.”

Her comment raised eyebrows around the board table, but was endorsed by vice-chairperson Eleanor Palis.

The trustees received the copy of a response to the government’s request that was prepared by the North Okanagan-Shuswap school district.

“Our board is concerned that the government believes that we have the ability to free up funding from existing budgets to provide for compensation increases without negatively impacting the delivery of education programming for students, transferring costs to the public or without reducing service levels to the public.”

Following the lead of the North Okanagan-Shuswap Board, local trustees responded with a letter expressing concern over the process outlined, and illustrating its inability to create a cost-savings plan within the government’s guidelines.

It outlined cost increases, including a teacher pension plan premium hike of 1.3 per cent, which will cost an estimated $930,000. The transition back to the PST on April 1 will cost another $230,000, and salary increments and employee benefit changes will see costs rise another $700,000.

“In addition to the savings required to achieve a balanced budget so as to provide for compensation increases within existing budgets, the board will have to consider reducing existing budgets by an additional estimated $3.25 million (approximately 2.5 per cent of our annual expenditure budget) over three years without negatively impacting the delivery of educational programs,” said the letter.

The letter talks about the district’s 6.1 per cent decline in enrolment over the past decade, and the tough budget decisions that have resulted, including the closing of Riverside and Mount Crescent elementary schools in 2010, the elimination of 35 teachers, four managers and seven CUPE positions,

“Given our history of budget cuts, reducing existing 2013/2014 budgets by an estimated $5.11 million (approximately four per cent of our annual expenditure budget) without negatively impacting the delivery of educational programs in our school district is not something that can be achieved by mid-January 2013, and will be exceedingly difficult to achieve at any time in the foreseeable future,” said the board’s letter, which was signed by chairperson Mike Murray.

The government is scheduling conference calls with board secretary treasurers to assist in the process, and wants savings plans by mid-January.

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