Maple Ridge school board, MLA in war of words over funding

Trustees’ decision to cut school buses: Dalton.

Marc Dalton.

In the face of criticism, Maple Ridge-Mission MLA Marc Dalton is sticking to his words, that his Liberal government has not forced the local school board to cut regular bus service through decreased funding.

He made those comments in a letter and reiterated them this week.

Dalton points out the board has an accumulated surplus of $4.6 million that it can now use for discretionary spending.

He refuted the board’s statement that it has had to find cuts of $10 million over the past three years, saying the board received that funding and more during the school year, when the ministry released its holdback funding.

For the present school year alone, that is $6 million, said Dalton.

“Most of the money they say they’re down, they eventually get back,” said Dalton.

The actual operating dollar amount allocated this year (2015-2016) is more than $122 million, in part because of a boost in student enrolment, as well as extra per pupil funding. On top of that is other funding, such as $4.2 million for capital projects.

Dalton’s letter explains that, in 2012, the education ministry allowed dedicated transportation funding to be considered a block amount, to allow boards to set their own priorities.

School District No. 42 has drafted a budget which will cut bus service used by 370 students in order to save $650,000, and there has been a concerted effort by parents affected to keep the service.

Dalton said he conveyed the concerns of local parents to the ministry, and was told that the board has not been squeezed for funding – in fact funding has increased every year.

School district secretary treasurer Flavia Coughlan has said local trustees can’t simply allocate surplus funds to bus  services because the ministry has ordered boards across the province to find administrative savings, and in this district that is $1.35 million in cuts over the present budget year and next, which will then be ongoing.

Dalton responded that those savings could be realized from a line-by-line examination of the board’s budget, rather then cutting bus service – a service he would like to see continue.

Dalton allowed that there are no easy decisions, that budgeting is tough, and called it “a well-run board with an excellent secretary-treasurer.”

For defending the government, the MLA was criticized by local trustees on Wednesday night at their budget public input meeting. This week, the board summarized its comments into a written response of their own.

Board chair Mike Murray said the government’s funding system, in which it holds back an indeterminate amount until the school year is under way, has presented challenges and forced the board to make cuts in order to present a balanced budget.

He said that is changing this year, and it’s a positive move.

“Let people know what they’ve got to work with,” he said. “We’ve been asking about that for a long time.”

He added that the board has faced numerous increases in costs since the 2012-2013 school year, including $820,000 for CUPE, $450,000 for the return to the PST, $650,000 for the province’s Next Generation Network internet service, MSP increases, B.C. Hydro rate hikes and other rate increases.

“Yes, there have been increases in government funding. The problem is the increase in funding hasn’t met the increase in cost,” said Murray.

The board’s letter said trustees have met with Dalton to discuss these issues.

“We believed MLA Dalton fully understood the impact that provincial underfunding has had on services to students in our school district,” said the board’s letter. “We are dismayed to discover that he does not.”

The board is scheduled to pass its budget balancing proposals at a meeting tonight.

 

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