Trustees see $10 million shortfall

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It would cost the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school district $5.5 million to lower class sizes back to 2002 levels.

As part of the provincial government’s legal wrangling with teachers, the Education Ministry asked boards to calculate the financial impact of the change.

The B.C. Supreme Court recently ruled in favour of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, agreeing that the government violated union members’ rights by stripping their collective agreement of class size provisions.

That decision will put financial pressure on already cash-strapped school districts.

“It should be noted that the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school district is currently estimating that it will be facing a funding shortfall of approximately $4.5 million,” notes the local board’s report to government. “If the implementation of the 2002 collective agreement language would be required without any additional funding from the Ministry of Education, then the estimated shortfall would increase to at least $9.98 million (eight per cent of the SD42 operating budget).

“To effect changes of this magnitude in any given year would be extremely difficult and would most likely significantly impact the quality, effectiveness and responsiveness of the education services provided to students enrolled in our schools.”

Locally, the change would mean hiring 36 classroom teachers and 22 non-enrolling teachers (learning assistance, library, counsellors, special education and ESL teachers).

There would be other challenges. Some elementary schools do not have space required to fulfill the class size obligations, and it would need to provide portables or transfer some students. There would be a risk of losing Strong Start sites, due to the need for classroom space. The international education program may no longer be viable under the language of the 2002 collective agreement.

The government has estimated the province-wide cost of returning to 2002 class-size language could be as high as $1 billion.

“We paid $500 million to put a roof on B.C. Place – the money is there,” said Maple Ridge Teachers’ Association president George Serra. “It’s about priorities.”

He says the government could bring in more money by taxing big business.

“The Liberals made a conscious decision to cut corporate taxes, and limited their revenue,” said Serra.

Still, he does not expect government to reset its priorities and come up with more funds for teachers.

“They’ve already said they don’t have the money.”

He predicted the government will instead appeal the matter as long as possible.

Serra said the BCTF has been watching cost estimates from districts around the province. Some will inflate the costs, in order to comply with the government’s agenda, he predicts.

He believes the local $5.5 million figure is accurate.

“I think our district was pretty fair.”

Maple Ridge-Mission MLA Marc Dalton, a teacher before entering politics, said he was not surprised by the $5.5 million figure, and said the province is not in a financial position to pay it.

“We believe in living within our means,” he said, noting Saskatchewan is the only other province to have presented a balanced budget.

Dalton said the B.C. government addressed a shortfall of specialist teachers and assistants through its learning improvement fund, set at approximately $250 million, in its third year, and which has created hundreds of new positions.

“We invested a significant amount after the last ruling,” Dalton said.

He added the government’s appeal of the class-size ruling is not based solely on government finances, but also on the philosophical belief that class sizes should not be on the table during negotiations.

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