For weeks now there has been an entertaining fight going on between the Vancouver School Board and the B.C. Education Ministry. It has often devolved into petty name-calling. There have been public tears, accusations and counter-accusations.
The public doesn't quite know who to believe.
Boards in B.C. have to balance their budgets by law. The Vancouver board says it has a $17-million shortfall, mostly because the province doesn't give it enough money to operate. Balancing its budget will mean closing schools, the board chair has said, which will be a blow to many parents and their children.
The government blames the problem on the incompetence of the board. It remains to be seen just how long Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid will allow the current group of trustees to continue running the show.
The fact is, it's not a fun time to be running a school board anywhere in Western Canada. But the funding binds that exist beyond B.C.'s border aren't, thankfully, producing the same hair-on-fire histrionics being witnessed in Vancouver.
Across the border in Alberta, for instance, things are a real mess.
Government funding for the upcoming school year is effectively flat. This came as a shock to some boards that thought, I guess, there would be 3- and 4-per-cent funding increases in perpetuity, no matter how the economy was doing. (It is Alberta after all).
One of those boards is Calgary. It's announced it is spending its entire $19-million reserve, as well as cutting 277 full-time jobs, including 192 teachers, to address the funding crisis it says it has. Even after that, it will still run a $10-million deficit.
It makes Vancouver's problems look almost munchkin-like by comparison. Unbelievably, the Alberta Tories have encouraged boards to run deficits rather than make cuts that are too draconian. This from a government that has never been shy about lecturing Ottawa and others about how to responsibly manage the public purse.
Calgary's board hasn't been the only one in Alberta that has had to make tough decisions. Edmonton's board passed an $800-million budget that included the reduction of about 100 teaching positions. Several hundred non-instructional staff were also laid off. There is expected to be about 500 public teaching jobs eliminated across Alberta in time for the next school year. Alberta's Catholic schools, meantime, are emptying their reserves to save jobs. It still may not be enough.
In Saskatchewan, meanwhile, the provincial government could only increase education spending by 1 per cent for 2010-11. School boards are saying that won't be enough to cover, among other things, budgeted raises for teachers. There is talk of cutting jobs there as well as reducing the number of school buses.
In Manitoba, the picture isn't much different. Although schools got a funding increase of 2.95 per cent for the coming year, that's down significantly from the 5.25 per cent they had the year before. Most boards seem to have been caught off guard by the dramatic drop in revenue. They, too, are saying publicly there may have to be some job cuts to make up for it. The government has said the increase is greater than the expected rate of economic growth in the province. It can't do more.
Perhaps by now you have discerned a pattern. School boards in the West are doing with less. Elected trustees are being forced to confront some rather bleak, unappealing choices. The spending sins of past boards are coming back to haunt those running the show today who find themselves looking around for all the cash that districts seemed to once have.
Money that allowed many boards to amass comfortable cash reserves are now being plundered.
Governments wish they had the dollars to please everyone. It would make their life so much easier. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. Provincial budgets rise and fall with the performance of the economy. Canada has just come through a nasty little recession that was always going to have an impact on budgets - including those for education.
I don't know if any of this will make trustees of the Vancouver School Board feel better about their plight. But maybe they can take some comfort in knowing there are others out there who feel their pain.