New B.C. Education Minister Peter Fassbender visited the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows School District on Tuesday, giving local trustees the opportunity to revisit a budget shortfall that it has so far addressed only by letter.
“We talked a lot of about what we’re doing, and some of the challenges,” said school board chair Mike Murray, who met Fassbender for the first time, and made it a cordial occasion. “We’re very pleased to have him here.”
With costs rising due to inflation, and income falling due to declining enrolment, The board faced a budget shortfall of almost $5.7 million for the present school year.
What’s more, the government’s Cooperative Gains Mandate is a policy that says the board will have to fund employee pay increases out of existing budgets. That means the recently signed CUPE deal calling for a wage hike of 3.5 per cent over two years will force the board to cut another $1 million.
Boards across the province have been expressing their frustration by letter to the education minister, both Fassbender and his predecessor Don McRae.
Fassbender got the message on Tuesday.
“They talked about funding pressures – everything that they have to add to their budget – the hydro increases and that,” he said of the meeting with senior district staff and board members.
He offered no indication that financial relief is coming.
“So we had a good discussion … didn’t change the reality for them of the economic pressures that we’re all feeling,” said the minister.
He praised the board for being innovative, progressive and willing to work with government.
“They’ve been a leader in the province, and I know they’ll continue to do that.”
He said the government’s approach to funding pressures in education is to focus on a healthy economy.
“What we can do about it is exactly what we’re doing – we’re building our economy so we have a solid foundation, so we can invest in the future into education, health care and the other social services,” he said.
Boards across the province are chafing at the Cooperative Gains Mandate, and the education ministry has seen numerous appeals for the government to fund the salary increases it negotiates with employee groups.
“We’re evaluating all of that as we move forward,” responded Fassbender. “We’re still, as the finance minister has said, very much on a razor’s edge when it comes to our economic platform because of the world economy … “
After the political meeting, four students gave the minister a tour of their school, Thomas Haney secondary, which is one of only two high schools in the province with self-directed learning, where students set their own agenda for study.
“There’s something significant to touring this school, because it really is the way of the future,” said Murray.
Fassbender responded to a few other inquiries.
Teresa Rezansoff, the president of the B.C. School Trustees Association, has expressed concern about the B.C. government’s core review, and how it may result in school boards being amalgamated. The review is designed to ensure all government programs operate as efficiently as possible, and she said trustees need to “dispel the myths of easy economic gains that amalgamation or regionalization would bring.”
Fassbender said all government operations will be reviewed.
“We’re going to work with the BCSTA to look for efficiencies throughout the system that we believe can be found – back office, technology, all of those things. There are no decisions made on anything that goes beyond working through that process,” he said.
Fassbender, at Thomas Haney, was also asked about his back-to-basics approach to education when he was a trustee.
“The fundamental skills of reading, writing, literacy, numeracy are absolutely critical to everyone’s journey,” he said. “What I see in this high school is if students have a good solid foundation, then they start to spread their wings and explore their passions and their visions for the future.
“One of the students I heard today, everything she does is around chocolate. So when she’s doing math projects, she’s bringing it back to her passion, which is chocolate, and I think that’s phenomenal, because that’s what she really is passionate about. And so you don’t have to lose the basics, you just apply them in real life situations, and I think that’s fabulous.”