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Education Minister threatens to fire trustees over refusal to balance budget

British Columbia Education Minister George Abbott.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Cowichan Valley School District's nine trustees will be fired shortly after July 1 if they refuse to file a balanced budget by June 30, B.C. Minister of Education George Abbott said.

Under the provincial School Act, B.C.'s 60 school districts must submit balanced budgets each year. In May, the Cowichan board released its "restoration budget," asking for an extra $3.8-million to pay for items that have disappeared since 2009. Five of the nine trustees approved the budget, with the remaining four opposed.

"There's no question about it," Mr. Abbott said of the firing. "I'll issue a letter to the board after July 1." An official trustee is being sought in case the trustees are turfed, he said.

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Cowichan Valley is the only B.C. school district that hasn't submitted a balanced budget.

School-district chairwoman Eden Haythornthwaite said she's willing to face the axe rather than cut the budget.

"I'm not a huge fan of debt cycles, but somebody has to start. We're prepared to compromise and negotiate but we won't remove our restoration budget," she said.

This will be the first time a B.C. Liberal government has fired a school board and replaced it with an official trustee.

Coincidentally, in 1985, in the Cowichan Valley School District, Bill Bennett's Social Credit government dismissed the board and appointed a trustee, repeated that year in the Vancouver School District. And in 1996, Mike Harcourt's NDP government ousted trustees at the North Vancouver School District.

Last year, the Saanich School District threatened to file a deficit budget but avoided that when in late June the Ministry of Education gave it more than $171,000 in funding that's normally supplied in the fall.

In Cowichan, the board did prepare a balanced $81.8-million budget, but did not submit it.

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"It's easy to balance, if you cut services," said Ms. Haythornthwaite, serving her third term as a trustee.

The "restoration piece," she said, is an attempt to re-establish services such as more special education teachers, custodial time, technology courses and improved busing. Increased staffing costs, inflationary pressures and the downloading of responsibilities are to blame for diminished services, Ms. Haythornthwaite said.

While per student funding in B.C. has increased by 40 per cent over the past decade, Cowichan is losing students, with enrolment down 25 per cent over that period, Mr. Abbott said.

"You can't operate a school district with the premise to treat everything the same with 25 per cent fewer students," he said.

Just last year, the district had 34 fewer students, representing a funding drop of about $290,000.

At a rally last week in Duncan, 175 supporters of the Cowichan board showed up, with several from other B.C. school districts.

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The B.C. Teachers' Federation also supports Cowichan's restoration budget. President Susan Lambert said the board has acted responsibly in that it's willing to put students first.

"It was a really brave decision," said Vancouver School Board chairperson Patti Bacchus, whose board supports the restoration budget. "It's something many trustees think about. We grapple with it every year."

In 2010, a special adviser was appointed by the province to work with the Vancouver School Board, which despite having prepared a balanced budget, said the cuts made too much of an impact and were unacceptable, Ms. Bacchus said.

Mr. Abbott remains steadfast. If he doesn't boot the board: "It's an open invitation for every school district who wants to do political grandstanding," he said. "[Cowichan] is attempting to make a political statement."

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