Another big fight is brewing in the education system, but unlike the last dustups this one doesn't involve the B.C. Teachers Federation.
This time it will be school boards facing off against the B.C. Liberals.
Many school districts have been saying for years that the system is underfunded, even when funding increases and enrolment drops.
It's been death by a thousand cost increases - everything from rising MSP premiums, inflation, employee benefits, heating costs, etc.
But this year a new wrinkle has been added to the mix. Education Minister Don McRae has written to school board chairs, telling them they must file a "savings plan" with him that will show how costs arising from anticipated wage increases for unionized support staff will be paid for under existing funding arrangements.
McRae has informed them the so-called "cooperative gains" mandate governing all government contract talks (which dictates that wage increases can be given only if enough internal savings are made to ensure the wage hikes don't inflate the bottom line) will apply to upcoming negotiations with support staff unions.
The move has outraged school trustees. B.C. School Trustees Association president Michael McEvoy fired off an angry response to McRae, telling him most school boards are already facing deficits and that there are no operational savings in the system. In fact, any belt-tightening that occurs will be done simply to meet existing cost pressures.
Any further "savings" on top of the existing fiscal problems will inevitably hurt services for students, McEvoy argues.
McRae has informed the boards he wants them to find "savings" equivalent to a 1.5-per-cent wage increase for support staff. The financial impact of that varies from district to district, but the Vancouver school board estimates a two-year contract under those terms would cost the district almost $5 million.
To put those numbers in context, the Vancouver board estimates its funding shortfall is already between $15 million to $25 million.
That shortfall includes such items as $4.2 million for salary and benefits increases, $3.5 million for an increase in pension plan payments for teachers and more than $7 million in potential "holdback funds" for next year.
While school boards routinely scream about underfunding every year and yet still seem to miraculously balance their budgets, the additional task of having to find money for wage increases may be the breaking point.
Evidence of how serious a problem this new demand poses for trustees is the fact that the chair of the employers' bargaining group has also written to the education minister, telling him it is impossible for boards to meet his call.
Melanie Joy, chair of the B.C. Public School Employers' Association, is also the chair of her school district in the Kootenays. She warned McRae her district already faces a shortfall of $1.1 million and that a CUPE wage increase would cost a further $300,000, leading to program cuts.
This festering problem may not be confined to the education system. In fact, all parts of the larger public sector, such as nurses, may be affected by how the cooperative gains concept plays out.
If the impact is both substantive and negative - taking the form of layoffs, program and service cuts for example - it may further cloud the already dim re-election chances of the B.C. Liberals.
McRae wants those savings plans on his desk by mid-January. As it stands now, I'd be surprised if all boards comply. Open defiance seems to be on the horizon.
Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for
© Copyright 2013