- Tracy Sherlock
School districts may be caught short under new B.C. budget
BC Teachers' Federation president Teri Mooring (BCTF photo)
With several Metro Vancouver school districts reporting deficits for next year, the provincial budget shows no spending increase for education beyond enrolment growth and negotiated wage increases.
Education funding is increasing by 6.5 per cent to $7.132 billion in British Columbia and over the three-year fiscal plan, the increase to education is $1.2 billion, the documents show.
B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring said teachers are encouraged to see that the collective agreement and enrolment growth are funded, but she’s concerned that budgets may be faced with cuts, which could mean teachers are laid off.
“I’m not at all convinced that it’s sufficient to stave off the cuts being contemplated by districts,” Mooring said in an interview. “We can’t come out of this pandemic with programs and services cut to students. … We really do need a fully funded and resilient system to address all the needs that students are going to have.”
Surrey is reporting a $43-million deficit, related to the pandemic, which has drastically reduced immigration and therefore, new students enrolling in Surrey schools. The district has also seen a drop in revenue from international students and facility rentals and an increase in costs due to providing online learning. By law, school districts have to balance their budgets, so projected deficits mean cuts need to be made. Surrey will balance its budget by May 12.
Vancouver is projecting a budget deficit, but it will offset it with surplus funds. Richmond is facing a $7.6-million structural deficit.
“For the past year, government has been consistently saying how integral schools are for students’ mental health and well-being, we need to see the funding reflect that,” Mooring said. “Public schools are integral to our post-pandemic recovery, so why districts are now being faced with the difficult decisions to slash programs and services that have helped keep students in school, and coping as best they can throughout the pandemic is beyond me.”
School trustees, who must make the tough decisions on how to balance districts' budgets are also concerned.
“Unfortunately, the funding announced today does not cover inflationary cost increases faced by school districts, nor are there any commitments to cover increased cost pressures related to the pandemic,” said Stephanie Higginson, president of the BC School Trustees Association. “Ultimately, districts will have to look closely at their budgets and we may see some hard conversations occurring in preparation for next school year.
New funding will be provided for mental health supports in schools, an expansion of childcare on school sites and work to address racism and reconciliation.
“This is part of our work to respond to a deeply disturbing rise in hatred and racism since the pandemic began,” B.C.’s finance minister Selena Robinson said in her budget speech. “We are also expanding B.C.’s anti-racism network, developing our province’s first anti-racism law, and working with communities on race-based data collection.”
Mooring said the anti-racism work “desperately needs to be done.”
There is $97 million provided for mental health supports for children, youth and young adults. An additional $20 million is provided to increase childcare spaces and $111 million towards creating a $10-a-day childcare program in B.C., budget documents say.
Mooring is also concerned that money for extra cleaning and personal protective equipment like masks is not included in the budget.
“Students won’t be vaccinated by September, I don’t imagine,” Mooring said.
There is also $3.5 billion in capital investment being made to build new schools and renovate existing schools, the budget shows.
Andrea Sinclair, president of the BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, said parents are happy to see the extra supports for capital, mental health and anti-racism initiatives. She noted that some school districts are going to have trouble balancing their budgets without an extra increase.
“It’s not a huge lift for districts and some of them are going to have difficulty,” Sinclair said.
Public transportation will be free for children 12 years old and younger, as of September, the budget says. Child and youth care services will get $85 million
Overall, the budget is focused on healthcare and provides $4 billion in healthcare increases, particularly for the vaccine rollout and increased contact tracing and testing for COVID-19. Also of note, the budget provides $506 million for CleanBC, which is focused on reducing emissions, and $500 million for InBC, to attract and keep businesses in B.C., particularly those that focus on the green economy or reconciliation, the budget documents say.
The budget projects a $9.7-billion deficit for 2021-2022 and will see provincial debt rise to $71.6 billion by the end of the fiscal year. Last year’s deficit was projected at $13.6 billion in a fall 2020 update, but is now forecast at $8.1 billion, budget documents show.
The province says the economy shrank by 5.3 per cent in 2020-21, but is projected to grow by 4.4 per cent in the upcoming fiscal year. Gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to return to pre-pandemic levels by 2022, the budget documents say. The budget includes $1 billion in contingency funds, and says the pandemic and how long it will last is the main risk to the fiscal plan.