Vancouver Sun – On education, Liberals ‘take with two hands … give back with one’

On education, Liberals ‘take with two hands … give back with one’

June 2, 2016

By Rob Shaw

A sudden flurry of school district funding announcements by the B.C. government – after several years of all but ignoring the complaints of cash-strapped school boards – boils down to a very simple political calculation from Premier Christy Clark: Education will be a ballot box issue in next year’s provincial election.

Clark said as much in an interview with The Vancouver Sun two weeks ago, citing voters’ satisfaction with their kids’ education as one of the key questions they’ll ask when deciding whether to re-elect her government.

“I think people will vote on their own personal best interests though,” Clark said. “What are my prospects of getting a job? What are my prospects of getting a promotion in the job that I have? What are the prospects of my kids to be able to get a great education and get their own job? I mean, that’s material for people.”

Key issues like growing the economy, protecting the environment, health care and “whether my kids are getting a good education” will be deciding factors for voters in judging the Liberals’ performance, she said.

But NDP Leader John Horgan argued the premier is trying to win votes by throwing cash at school districts in key ridings less than a year before the May 2017 provincial election, with hopes parents forget classroom cutbacks, teacher layoffs and school closures under her tenure.

“This is about Christy Clark doing what she needs to do to get rid of bad headlines as we go into an election period,” Horgan said. “I don’t think anyone is going to be fooled by that.”

Since March, the education ministry made four significant funding announcements totalling $192.5 million, but none added new money to the overall education budget. In March, Education Minister Mike Bernier announced schools would get $28 million, to be taken from holdback funds. In May, announcements have included $99.5 million for nearly 3,000 school spaces in Surrey, $40 million for school maintenance, and this week’s announcement that districts could keep $25 million they had been ordered to cut.

School trustees, teachers and parents have cried out for more education funding, saying the government hasn’t raised its budgets enough to pay for mandatory technology upgrades, salary increases for non-union staff, and other cost increases including rising B.C. Hydro rates and MSP premiums. One parent group estimates the provincewide shortfall at $85 million.

The latest announcement – which amounts to the government returning some of the administrative money it had demanded be cut from school districts – came without warning for trustees and after most districts had already made choices about cutbacks to set their budgets before the July 1 start of the fiscal year.

“It’s almost what I call a smokeand-mirror game,” said Mike Lombardi, chairman of the Vancouver school board, which is facing a $24-million shortfall. “They take with two hands and they give back with one hand.”

While any funding is appreciated, one-shot funding announcements don’t help boards with long-term planning, Lombardi said.

“It’s a ridiculous way to run the school system,” he said.

“What school boards need is stable, predictable funding that is built into operating (funding) so the board can count on it.”

Instead, Lombardi said, the Liberals are targeting political “hot spots” like Osoyoos, Saanich and Surrey with funding.

In Saanich, trustees passed a budget that was balanced by including nearly $1 million in anticipated revenue from the provincial government.

In the Liberal-held riding of Boundary-Similkameen, the town of Osoyoos is seeing its only secondary school shut down.

In Surrey, nearly 7,000 students attend class each day in portables. The city is also a key election battleground, home to three highranking cabinet ministers – Amrik Virk, Stephanie Cadieux and Peter Fassbender – and the site of a new riding for the 2017 election.

A delegation of angry Surrey parents showed up at the legislature last month to confront the government and the region’s eight MLAs, five of whom are B.C. Liberals.

That has turned up the political heat on the Liberals, Surrey-Newton NDP MLA Harry Bains said. “I think it’s all about electioneering,” Bains said, “and knowing, especially for Surrey MLAs, they have to answer those questions from angry parents and constituents: Where have you been when our children don’t have real classrooms to go to?” rshaw@postmedia.com !@COPYRIGHT=© 2016 Postmedia Network Inc. All rights reserved.