Our schools can take no more: board

Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows trustees catalogue years of cutbacks and closures

Maple Ridge teachers heading into summer break with no prospect of settlement.

Maple Ridge teachers heading into summer break with no prospect of settlement.

The Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school system can’t take another round of financial cuts, say local trustees.

One of the last acts of the school year for the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school board was to send a five-page letter to the Education Minister Peter Fassbender, asking Victoria to change the way it funds schools.

The letter chronicles years of austerity, that have included the closure of six schools, elimination of resource and administrative positions and maintenance set at minimal levels. All of that took place prior to the 2013-14 budget year.

The 2013-14 budget increased class sizes, cut teacher librarian staffing levels in half at secondary schools, and increased school rental fees for community groups.

That drew appeals from local groups including minor soccer, cadets and Girls Scouts.

The 2014-2015 budget increased class sizes again, close to the maximum allowable levels set by the ministry. CUPE secretarial staff positions were also cut, and a bus fee schedule, which starts at $215 per year for a single student, was brought in.

The letter was blunt in tone.

“… we cannot pay as much attention to students as we have done in the past,” and “Fine arts and physical education programs are inconsistent in our elementary schools given the lack of resources to hire specialists in these areas. We cannot move ahead with new schools in developing areas as quickly as we should …” says the letter, signed by chair Mike Murray and others.

The board asks the government to:

1. Acknowledge the board is managing resources carefully.

2. Acknowledge these cuts will have a negative impact on students.

3. Encourage other government ministries to meet their obligations to families, with health assessments, social service needs and other services.

“We are literally trying to find the resources to feed hungry kids and we cannot do it all,” said the board.

4. Fully cover additional costs to boards such as labour contract settlements and inflationary increases like increased BC Hydro rates.

5. Review and revise the system of holding back funding budgeted by the ministry for school district operations.

6. Review and revise the funding formula.

7. Review and revise the system of capital planning.

8. Review tax policy with respect to school property taxes.

On the last point, part of the local property tax bill is for education, but any increases are set by Victoria – not local boards.

“It appears school property taxes have stayed constant over time while municipal property taxes have increased considerably over the past 10 years.

“We pass no judgements on the level of municipal taxation, however at the very least, school property taxes need to be increased by inflationary amounts every year to generate additional government revenues for their intended purpose – education,” the board urges Fassbender.

The letter was copied to local MLAs Marc Dalton (Maple Ridge-Mission) and Doug Bing (Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows).

Bing agreed the province’s funding formula needs to be changed. He believes it will be.

“There’s an understanding that the old funding formula is fraught with problems,” he said.

Bing explained the current funding formula, which allots money to districts based on student enrolment, always seemed equitable. However, enrolment was always rising, so funding was generally increasing and covered inflation and other rising expenses. With many Lower Mainland districts, including Maple Ridge, now experiencing an unforeseen decline in enrolment, funding has dropped off. A new system should be explored, Bing agreed.

Many boards have written to Victoria asking for increased funding. Bing said it is good for the local board to add its voice.

“It’s definitely worthwhile. Sometimes it doesn’t seem that way, but it’s important to put it on the record.

“The message has been received, and it’s on my radar screen.”

The education ministry said it would make no comment about the board’s letter, until it had responded directly to the board.