The school board will he holding a budget retreat April 15, trying to figure out where to cut staff, following a round of public consultations last week.
The board expects to have to cut $650,000 from its budget for next year, mostly because it expects fewer students in school. It has said it’s not considering closing any schools, so the cuts are likely to hit teachers and other staff the hardest.
The board held public consultation meetings last week in Sandspit (reported in the Observer April 1), in Queen Charlotte on Tuesday, Port Clements on Wednesday and Masset Thursday.
In Queen Charlotte, teacher Peter Gajda told the board he was happy he was in the audience and not on the board, as there were some tough choices upcoming.
“Your toolbox has scissors in it,” he said, “measure twice and cut once”. And he suggested the board try to ‘”expand the toolbox” by finding more money so fewer cuts are necessary. He suggested the board try to make cuts that do not directly affect kids, and asked it to take a close look at what it pays for mileage, as well as noting that transporting a handful of high-school students from Sandspit to Queen Charlotte would be a lot cheaper than keeping the Sandspit high school open.
Teacher Karl Puls noted that cuts start a “diminishing returns” process, where less course offerings mean students go elsewhere and then fewer teachers are required. He said that an educator/student ratio of around 12, which the board says is low compared to the provincial average of 18, is not unusual in small, northern districts.
Sk’aadgaa Naay principal Joanne Yovanovich told the board she’d like to hear as soon as possible about coming cuts. “If it could happen quicker, than later, people can adjust to the news,” she said.
Parent Sue Brown said the board should ask staff in the schools where to make any cuts, because they have a better idea than others, but Karl Puls said that was done in the last round of cuts two years ago. “We have been bailing like crazy and we are struggling to stay afloat,” he said.
And QCSS principal Elizabeth Condrotte offered what she called her message for the future- share resources and don’t fight over them. “We have less,” she said, “we can share it or we can fight over it.”
In Port, several parents and community members showed up to support the elementary school, hard hit by declining enrolment and now has 62 students in three classrooms. School board chair Andreas Uttendorfer said the board has no intention of closing any schools at this point.
“If anybody’s worried about this school being closed, they can rest easy,” he said. “This year, this school is not on the table. It is going to stay open.”
Brigid Cumming, chair of the Port Parent Advisory Council, made a presentation offering money-saving ideas and querying some district practices.
“Are the costs of maintaining a high school for 10 students in Sandspit – which appears to mean two full-time teachers plus possibly a librarian – less than running a bus from Sandspit to the ferry, and then having the students get on the ferry and be picked up at Skidegate Landing by the bus to the Queen Charlotte high school?” she asked. And: “Why is the teacher for the e-bus program, which requires regular in-home visits with students, located in Sandspit? Aren’t most of the students on Graham Island? Doesn’t that increase travel costs?”
Mr. Uttendorfer said Sandspit’s extremely proud of its high school (which goes to grade 10) and that it has been “innovative” in coming up with programs. Closing the high school and forcing the students to go to Queen Charlotte could turn out to be counter-productive, he said, as some parents have indicated they’d pull their children out, triggering more enrolment decline in the district.
Queen Charlotte trustee Shirley Hawse said the e-bus program has kept Sandspit’s student numbers up to an acceptable level, and that if the program were taken away, the Sandspit school would be “in danger”.
Sandspit’s official enrolment is 64 full-time equivalents, but Ms Cumming pointed out that there are actually only 52 attending the school – the remainder are associated with the e-bus program. That leaves AL Mathers with quite a few less students than Port – yet it has five teachers and two and a half support staff positions, compared to four teachers and one and a half support staff positions at Port.
Port would also like to have grades 8 to 10 in the community, but the school board has said that it’s not going to happen because it’s not cost-effective, Ms Cumming said.
“That’s why I’m a little bit puzzled, why it continues to be cost-effective in Sandspit,” she said.
Ms Cumming also asked if the board had compared the cost of a four-day school week to that of a five-day week. Several other districts in BC have moved to a four-day week to save money.
Mr. Uttendorfer said the idea was not well-received by staff when the board brought it up earlier this year, and he said there are questions about its effect on education. However, he did not have any information about how much money it would actually save.
“I’d like to see the dollars and cents,” Ms Cumming said. “I find it very difficult to make informed financial decisions without some ballpark figures.”
However, assistant secretary-treasurer Carman Lynch told her the savings would likely be negligible.
Lisa Waring said it is difficult for many members of the public to offer an opinion about how to achieve huge cuts, as they don’t know enough about how the system works. As a parent, she said, she simply wanted to tell the board that the local schools and the people who work in them are extremely important.
“We’re already at a skeleton level,” she said. “The school is really the life blood of the communityÂ… We don’t want to see our children have less teacher time.”
In Masset, teacher Lorrie Joron said “the entire economy of these islands depends on a good public education system. I’m challenging everyone on this island to step up (and speak out against these cuts), because the provincial government doesn’t care about our kids”. “There is a gap in resources,” she said of the isolation disadvantage of the islands, “and we’re expected to fill these gaps.” The budget does not reflect increasing standards of education, and the province is making teachers do more, to higher standards, but without increasing funding, Ms Joron said.
“We’re hurting up here,” said GM Dawson teacher Mike Bird, adding that cuts could have a “catastrophic” effect on schools. (These cuts) “Â… are going to affect all students, so of course that’s going to affect all teachers, ” said Mr. Bird, who teaches social studies.
Teacher Anne-Marie Mol said “I am hopeful though”, speaking for the district resource centre, referring to expansion there in the last two years. It provides learning resources for teachers that can be shared between all the island’s schools. She emphasized the importance of sharing resources in this time of cutbacks.
One question asked was if the board is thinking of submitting a ‘needs budget’ to Victoria, a budget based on what the education system here needs, not what the province wants to pay for. School district secretary-treasurer Andrea DeBucy said that if the board did that,the province would fire it and replace it with an appointee.
The board now will meet with several unions and the two band councils following its April 15 meeting. It will present its budget to the public at the board meeting April 27 in Masset, and must issue pink slips to any laid off employees by the end of this month.