Don’t expect any major increases to education funding while the province struggles to balance its budget, education minister George Abbott said on a tour of Maple Ridge schools Friday.
And while the HST won’t make matters any easier in the short-term, more money isn’t the only ingredient necessary in creating a strong education system.
Abbott was in Maple Ridge of Friday to tour School District No. 42, as well as the independent Meadowridge School.
The government announced of Friday it would be increasing its education budget by 1.2 per cent for the 2011/12 school year, an increase below the national inflation rate of three per cent.
Abbott blamed the government’s fiscal pressure on the continued fallout from the global economic downturn.
“B.C. has not been exempt from that,” said Abbott.
However, he put the onus on school boards and district staff to come up with innovative ways to deliver education, within the constraints of ministry funding.
“A lot of times innovation depends not on dollars, but on the board,” Abbott said. “Sometimes you need dollars to do things, but not always. You need to have the right plan, and then based on that right plan … you can move forward. But money alone will never buy you a great education system.”
However, Abbott recognized that while the provincial education budget has crept slowly upwards, funding pressures faced by school districts have increased, as well.
“Has the growth been sufficient to deal with all the pressures school district have encountered?” Abbott said. “Arguably those pressures have grown over time.”
The fiscal pressure faced by the provincial government will likely worsen in the short term as a result of the HST, he added, no matter what the outcome of the mail-in referendum.
“It’s going to be challenging whether it passes or fails,” Abbott said.
If the HST is tossed out by the province-wide referendum next month, the provincial government will have to pay back the federal government $1.6 billion. Should British Columbians vote to keep the tax, the province will have to make good on its promise to reduce the provincial portion of the sales tax by two percentage points over the next three years, causing a drop in tax revenue.
However, Abbott contends the HST will spark economic activity in the province, resulting in a net increase in tax revenues down the road.
“We believe it is a superior way of drawing in taxes,” he said. “But in the short run, it will be economically challenging. Period. There’s no question, it’s going to be challenging times.”
B.C. Teachers, who are currently negotiating with the province for a new contract, should not expect much at the bargaining table as a result, as Abbott reiterated the provincial government’s commitment to freeze public sector wages.
“We don’t have the flexibility we did in 2006,” he said. “That’s the reality we have to work with.”
Abbott was quiet on the possibility of capital funding for a new elementary school in the rapidly growing Albion area of east Maple Ridge.