Unionized school district staff are questioning the school board’s spending priorities, as some 40 positions are to be cut, while the district spends $50,000 in its search for a new superintendent.
CUPE faces the most cuts – 23 positions – in the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school district’s proposed 2014-2015 budget and is challenging the board’s spending habits during a time of austerity.
The board faces a budget shortfall of $5 million in its $129 million budget next year, and has cut numerous positions. It is still considering whether to save $880,000 by cutting busing for regular students.
Trustees may instead decide to charge bus students $215 a year for the service.
CUPE local president Leslie Franklin, who represents secretaries, custodians and support staff, took aim at the $50,000 the board has budgeted for recruiting a new superintendent, to replace the recently departed Jan Unwin, who went on to work with the education ministry.
The board has a contract in place with an executive search firm for the hire. It is the only hire made by trustees and requires assistance from a firm that specializes in the process.
“It is common practice in the education sector to engage an executive search firm to replace the CEO of the organization,” responded communications manager Irena Prochop.
“For an important position such as this, it’s crucial to cast a wide net so as to find an outstanding CEO for the district.”
However, Franklin said the district already has a great internal candidate in acting superintendent Laurie Meston.
CUPE members have also been critical of the school district’s principals taking retreats, spending thousands of dollars on a trip to Whistler, while school secretaries are losing their jobs.
Prochop explained that all principals and vice-principals have a professional development allowance of $1,500 in their contracts, which is part of their total compensation package. They draw on it for conferences or other training and education opportunities.
School District No. 42 administrators pool their resources to take training together.
“We have been fortunate in this district, in that our principals and vice-principals have generously allocated a part of this allowance every year toward organizing a district-wide conference,” said Prochop. “But again, the money for these conferences comes out of a pro-d allowance that is written into our administrators’ contracts.
Franklin said the cutbacks to clerical staff will be noticeable to parents and students. Simply phoning a school and getting a person on the other end of the line will be difficult. When kids are not picked up on time after school, or when parents need to get messages to their children, it is CUPE clerical staff who handle such situations.
“That’s going to be an issue,” she predicts.
“They [school board administrators] have no respect for CUPE work,” she accused. “They don’t value it.”
Franklin was also angry that CUPE members could also lose the right to work during half of the two-week spring break. When the board opted for a two-week break three years ago, CUPE was assured its members could continue to work for one week, so they would not lose pay.
“Now they see it as a great way to save $400,000 off our backs,” said Franklin.
She said the district has 729 CUPE employees, and approximately 500 will be hit by the budget cuts.
Franklin said that most of the board’s cuts hurt the lowest paid people in the district, noting that the average support staff employee has a gross income of $25,000 a year.
The proposed budget revealed that the board is predicting a surplus of approximately $1 million from the present budget year. The board went into the last budget session predicting a shortfall of $5.6 million, and cut 35 positions. But the situation was apparently not as bad as anticipated.
The surplus raises the question of whether the board was too conservative in its budget estimates last year.
Prochop explained that enrolment was higher than expected, bringing in more grant revenue. Expenditures for services, supplies and utilities were lower than expected due to conservative spending across the district, as school staff was “extremely cautious in their spending.”
Also, the district did not fill a number of vacancies that came up through the school year, creating more savings in salaries and benefits.
School boards across the region are wrestling with budget shortfalls, ranging from $2 million to $5 million. Notably, Coquitlam must cut $13.4 million from its $270 million budget.
With the school board hosting a forum for public feedback on the budget tonight at Maple Ridge secondary, from 6-9 p.m., those affected will be making their point directly to trustees.
“CUPE will certainly make its feelings known,” said Franklin.