The news that school districts across the region will have to find another $29 million in cuts in the coming school year was a bolt out of the blue to the Richmond School Board.
Premier Christy Clark told business leaders in Kelowna last week that it was time for school boards across B.C. to start looking for ways to save money — $29 million in the coming year and another $24 million the following year.
Clark made specific reference to school districts’ administration costs, suggesting that the likes of human resource and payroll departments could be amalgamated to save money.
However, Richmond’s school board chair, Eric Yung, was stunned to hear Clark’s demands, especially as his district has been finding efficiencies away from the classroom for many years.
“This was totally new information and we’ve already done a lot of the work for the upcoming budget, which is due in May,” said Yung.
“This is not only bad news for this year, but also for next. We don’t know what our share (of the $29 million) is yet.
“And we don’t yet know what the government means by ‘administration costs,’ — is that supplies, staffing, what?”
Yung said he expects to find out more about the cuts later this week, after district staff have conversations with the government.
But the new school board chair insists there is no more fat to be trimmed from the district’s beleaguered budget.
And he takes exception to the premier’s direction for school boards to consider merging departments and joining forces with neighbouring districts.
“For years we’ve been trying to keep the cuts away from the classroom and restricting it to behind-the-scenes administration,” said Yung.
“We already have an arrangement with other school boards to purchase bulk supplies together to keep the cost down.
“And we’ve looked into combining payroll and human resource departments, but the savings were not that significant.”
Former school board chair and current trustee Donna Sargent said there continues to be a “total lack of understanding” from the provincial government when it comes to their efforts to keep costs down and to what work administration departments actually carry out.
“To just blanket target a group (administration) is completely wrong,” said Sargent.
“In my 12 years on the board, we’ve been trying to keep costs down; we look at absolutely everything, but here we have suggestions (from the premier) that we’ve never even looked at this area to reduce costs.
“The whole thing is very disheartening.”
Clark told reporters last week that school boards need to do what other groups in the province have done and find back-office savings.
"This has been done by the health care system, it's been done by the university and college system. There's no reason why school boards can't find similar savings," said Clark.
"There is no reason why two school boards that are sitting right beside each other, serving almost the same geographical population would have two payroll departments, two human resources departments. There are a lot of ways to find administrative savings and we expect them to do it."
Last week’s B.C. budget was hailed by Clark as another triumph because it was balanced and for providing additional funding for school districts to cover the cost of teacher raises.
"We are adding over $500 million I think to the education budget over the next few years. All of that is going to front line services including vastly improving the number of special needs teachers that are in schools," added Clark.
That funding was part of the agreement which ended the teacher's strike last fall.
The BC Teachers' Federation, however, called the budget a 'shell game' by forcing more cuts onto school districts.