School board tries again to protest cuts

Chair questions finance minister at Friday lunch in Pitt Meadows

B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong explains the provincial government's position on education funding at a recent visit to the Maple Ridge Chamber of Commerce.

Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school board chair Mike Murray had a chance to question the finance minister directly about education funding Friday.

But at the end of the Q & A session at the chamber luncheon, Murray still was looking for answers.

Murray asked Finance Minister Mike de Jong if the B.C. government was aware the school board had already made significant cuts to its admin costs, in addition to the $2 million in cuts the school board will have to make this year.

But de Jong had heard it all before.

“When I was health minister, I was told repeatedly by people who were very good, dedicated, passionate – that for the health-care budget to grow by less than eight per cent – would be apopolectic.”

But the rate of growth of health spending was trimmed to six per cent, then four per cent.

“Then I was told there was no way that we could reduce health-care spending by three per cent.” The current rate is below three per cent.

If health spending remained unchecked, the budget now would be $30 billion instead of $18 billion.

“There would be virtually nothing left for anything.

“If spending was the measure of success, the healthiest population would be Alberta.” But plunging oil revenues are hurting that province.

“You’re going to see some dramatic changes with our neighbour to the east,” said de Jong.

Still, paring education spending will require “some innovative thinking.”

He said in the past that  teachers were getting zero or one-per-cent raise increases, whil some school administrators were getting 27- and 28-per-cent increases.

B.C.’s balanced budget, which includes a surplus of just under a billion dollars for 2014-15, is envied across Canada, de Jong said.

The income taxes paid by a two-income family of four earning $90,000 are the second-lowest in the country, after Alberta. That family pays $9,780 a year, including MSP premiums, about $2,000 more than an Albertan family.

“They look at the numbers and they say, ‘How did you do it?’ ”

Ontario has a $12-billion deficit and is Alberta’s is now $8 billion.

He recognized that MSP premiums were going up, which is a burden, noting premiums pay about 10 per cent of the health-care budget.

The budget brought in in February, required school districts provincewide to save a combined $29 million in this budget year.

Murray though said the government is actually paring $84 million a year from education, $54 million in operating cuts and $30 million from increased yearly costs that are not funded by the government.

In Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows, administration budgets have been slashed by $8 million in the past two years, with another $2 million cut this year.

Murray asked why “such severe and continuing cuts” are needed to public education, given that there’s an $800-million surplus in the provincial budget.

He’s tried to get a meeting between the school board and provincial government, with no luck.

“There are some surprises in this budget for which there was no discussion, and we are concerned about that.”

De Jong though said that every other government department has done the same thing.

NDP finance critic Carole James says low- and middle-income earners need a break, but are instead facing another four-per-cent hike to MSP premiums, a six-per-cent hike to Hydro rates, ferry fare hikes, higher tolls, park fees and ICBC rates.

“Families are already struggling – their costs are going up and their wages are flat.”

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