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'Survivor' atmosphere at Richmond school district budget discussion

Richmond School District, facing a $7.2 million budget shortfall in 2021/22, is considering what cuts are needed to balance the budget.
Richmond School District

For one school trustee, a public consultation on budget cuts to the Richmond School District felt like “an episode of Survivor.”

With the school district facing a $7.2 million budget shortfall next year, several employee groups and members of the public pleaded Wednesday with Richmond Board of Education to keep cuts away from the classroom and save jobs. (The school district is anticipating budget shortfalls for the subsequent two years as well.)

After the board of education listened to “stakeholder groups” – the Richmond Teachers’ Association (RTA), CUPE loc. 716, the Richmond District Parents’ Association (RDPA) and others – as well as some employees whose jobs are proposed to be cut, Trustee Ken Hamaguchi said he felt “all the positions discussed are important positions.”

He said the school district doesn’t have “luxuries,” just “necessities.”

“It troubles me that I feel like I’m watching an episode of Survivor,” Hamaguchi said. “In that everyone is trying so hard to hang in there and survive and it shouldn’t be that way.”

“Unless there’s a miracle cheque that comes in the mailbox, we are going to have to make some really hard choices,” he added.

To balance the budget next year, district staff have proposed cutting nine CUPE jobs as well as about nine teacher positions.

Ian Hillman, president of CUPE loc. 716, which represents unionized administration and building maintenance staff, suggested, instead of cutting unionized jobs like a records clerk, the school district should scale back on the number of managers, for example, in communications, IT and international education.

He called the school district’s management “top heavy” and said the board of education should draw more from reserves to stop the job cuts.

“I don’t understand the liberal use of the title ‘executive director’ amongst the management staff and subsequent pay raise – we have enough managers,” Hillman told the board of education. “Would an option not be to have these managers supervised by the deputy superintendent or one of the assistant superintendents?”

He also suggested eliminating more vice-principals than suggested in the budget cuts.

The RDPA, which represents school district parents, also weighed in on the proposed job cuts, saying, for example, it’s not time to hire a district administrator to oversee a diversity and inclusion program.

“In a time of budget surplus, a position such as this makes sense, but in light of the budget cuts and possible elimination of school-based positions, we would like to see this responsibility shared among current senior staff,” said Andrew Scallion, president of RDPA.

Scallion also said RDPA supported the RTA’s position to use reserves instead of eliminating teachers and keeping daytime custodians, something that was brought back because of COVID-19 health and safety reasons.

He also said there should be a “re-evaluation” of management allocation in the school district.

“The district appears to have an excessive number of managers, many of whom supervise very few employees,” Scallion said. “We feel the funds could be better allocated in school-based expenditures.”

But secretary-treasurer Roy Uyeno told the Richmond News the cuts proposed in the school district are proportionate across the board, taking a “balanced approach” across employee groups.

“Our largest employee group is teachers and, after teachers, is CUPE support staff,” Uyeno said. “Our management staff… represent a very small proportion of our staffing complement in our district.”

There are about 100 principals and vice-principals and about 50 management staff across the Richmond School District, he added.

Currently, principals and vice-principals make up four per cent of staff and eight per cent in salaries, management 2.5 per cent of staff (and 3.8 per cent of salaries) whereas CUPE workers are 25 per cent and teachers are 58 per cent of staff.

The school district will have an accumulated surplus of $9.8 million at the end of this year.

In the past year, $7 million was drawn from the surplus to cover funding shortfalls as revenues dropped in international education, rentals and investment.

International education revenue has dropped by 35 per cent this year, and the school district is planning on reducing its staff by one non-union employee and 1.5 union employee positions, Uyeno said.

However, the school district is expecting this program to grow again after the pandemic is over.

The school district also received about $9 million in federal funding to help with COVID-19-related costs.

But no more funding for COVID-19 relief for school districts has been promised by either the provincial or federal governments.

Per student funding didn’t increase in this year’s provincial budget except to cover salary increases that are mandated in contracts.

The Richmond school district budget is expected to come back to the board of education for approval at its May meeting.

The school district has to present a balanced budget to the Ministry of Education by the end of the school year.