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Children at the Strathcona Community Centre take part in an after school program in Vancouver March 8, 2011. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Children at the Strathcona Community Centre take part in an after school program in Vancouver March 8, 2011. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Bracing for a two-week spring break Add to ...

As school-aged kids gleefully get ready for spring break, Ron Suzuki is almost dreading it.

A long-time programmer with the Strathcona Community Centre, Mr. Suzuki this year will oversee scores of kids for two weeks of spring break instead of one.

That's because the Vancouver School Board last year tweaked its calendar, joining dozens of other districts throughout the province that have overhauled their schedule to save money.

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The VSB, which battled the province over what the board said was a shortfall of more than $17-million before passing a balanced budget last spring, estimates the change will save the district at least $1.2-million.

Some of those savings will come out of the pockets of families and community agencies, Mr. Suzuki says.

The inner-city Strathcona Community Centre runs a "holiday safe place" program for neighbourhood children. The program, paid for by corporate donors, provides hot meals and activities for 120 children aged 5 to 11 who otherwise might be home alone. Mr. Suzuki estimates that it will cost $2,500 a day, or $25,000, to provide meals and activities to children on the 10 non-instructional days the VSB has added to its calendar. (Five of those have been folded into a longer spring break and five spread throughout the school year.)

The community centre has received no additional funding to reflect additional programming demands.

"I have not seen a penny," Mr. Suzuki said, adding that other community centres that serve low-income families and neighbourhoods are in the same bind. (The VSB does fund the KidSafe project, a different program that provides hot meals and activities to about 300 children in five inner-city schools.)

Mr. Suzuki's headaches are part of a bigger picture. Around the province, districts are overhauling their school calendars - adding minutes, shaving days and trimming lunch breaks - in the interest of saving dollars in wages, utilities and transportation costs.

The provincial Education Ministry sets required instruction hours each year and provides a standard school calendar.

Local school districts have the right to set their own calendar providing they meet instructional time requirements and consult parents and staff. School calendars must be set by the end of May for the following school year.

The VSB introduced its revised calendar on a trial basis and this month will survey parents, staff and students to gauge their response.

Some argue the balance has tilted away from family interests.

"There are extra costs involved in child care, and parents who are having to take extra time off work because they are not able to arrange care," said Gwen Giesbrecht, who chairs Vancouver's District Parent Advisory Council. "So there are costs coming at parents from two directions."

So far, reports relating to the costs and benefits of altered school calendars are largely anecdotal. The British Columbia Association of School Business Officials, which represents financial officers in school districts, has not conducted a cost-benefit analysis on the issue because there are too many variables between districts, its executive director said.

According to a recent Canadian Union of Public Employees briefing note, 32 of 60 school districts in B.C. have a two-week spring break. CUPE members, including teaching assistants and support staff, in some cases are off work and lose pay when a school calendar changes.

Coast Mountains School District has returned to a one-week spring break and the provincial calendar after trying out a four-day and modified five-day week over the past few years.

The four-day schedule - which added one hour and 11 minutes of instructional time to each school day - was taxing for teachers and students, especially those in the primary grades, said Reid Nelson, a long-time teacher in Kitimat and president of Local 80 of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation.

Not all the savings that had been anticipated from the revised calendar were realized, he said, noting that heavier use of school buildings resulted in increased cleaning time and costs.

"There are all kinds of implications that pop up from the original assessment," Mr. Nelson said.

As school boards prepare for another round of budget deliberations, school officials and unions are calling on the provincial government to boost education funding, saying widespread calendar juggling shows that boards are being pushed to the financial wall.

This month, the province announced funding for the 2011-2012 school year of $4.7-billion, up $58-million from current levels. That translates to a per-pupil increase of $44. The province has repeatedly said that education funding has increased every year since 2000-2001, but school districts have said those increases have not kept pace with rising costs, including wages.

Meanwhile, ski hills, swimming pools and other facilities that can provide pastimes or programs for kids temporarily free of the school routine - and whose parents can afford to foot the bill - are looking forward to an extended rush.

Vancouver's Cliffhanger Gym has planned additional workshops to take advantage of the city's extended spring break, said assistant manager Jeff Kydd.

"We see when the kids are out of school and we plan accordingly."

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