B.C. asks school districts to chip in for capital projects

New schools and other construction have traditionally been funded 100 per cent by Victoria.

As the local school district is discussing yet another multi-million-dollar budget shortfall, the education ministry wants it and others in B.C. to help pay for half of capital projects.

New schools and other construction have traditionally been funded 100 per cent by Victoria.

Education Minister Peter Fassbender said this week that he would like to see school districts pitch in to help the province fund capital projects, such as seismic upgrading, if they have extra cash.

In the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school district, there is little left for the province to take.

A shortage of funds is the main topic of local education, as trustees once again grapple with a budget that will have a shortfall in excess of $5 million.

On Wednesday night, the 2014-2015 preliminary budget is on the agenda, and staff will begin a discussion of where cuts can be made.

There is also a facilities review as part of the agenda.

As boards such as the local one plead poor, Fassbender clarified that there are some in B.C. carrying a surplus: Vancouver has $23 million, Surrey $20 million and Victoria $17 million.

In Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows, the district used most of its reserves last year to cover funding shortfalls in its operating expenses, and there is less than $2 million left.

“We don’t have any reserves anymore, so there’s nothing to claw back,” said trustee Ken Clarkson. “We’ve reduced our’s every year, to cover the budget deficit.”

He noted that when the province negotiated a salary increase with CUPE, but failed to provide boards with additional funding, it was contingency funds that made up the difference.

“Some boards still do have cash reserves,” he said. “My understanding is that the province does not want boards to have contingency funds.”

He said that is a shortsighted view, one that fails to recognize that local districts can encounter financial emergencies that require available funds.

School District staff clarified that there are no local seismic upgrade projects that are a priority.

The B.C. School Trustees Association will be meeting soon for its annual general meeting, and Clarkson believes his contemporaries from around the province will be irked by this latest government initiative. He is the local board’s representative on the BCSTA.

“This is not acceptable to boards,” he said. “This is government taking whatever autonomy boards do have, away.”

He said school boards are increasingly having their authority eroded. Payroll centralization is another ministry initiative that could affect boards.

“You’ve got a school board there, but you’re gutting everything they do,” said Clarkson.

The AGM will be held April 24-27 at the Hyatt Regency Vancouver.

Fassbender said whether or not a capital project receives Victoria’s approval will not be linked to a board’s ability to provide funds.