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School board may split over budget

Apr 15 2012

The Greater Victoria school board is expected to split Monday on whether to approve a balanced budget for next year.

Trustees Deborah Nohr, Catherine Alpha and Diane McNally, all current or former teachers, have confirmed that they plan to vote against the budget on the grounds that it fails to meet the educational needs of students.

Nohr said in an interview that years of underfunding by the B.C. Liberal government have led to severe district shortages of educational assistants, counsellors, teacher-librarians and specialist teachers.

"I have observed the deterioration in our school system in every way," she said. "This is completely unacceptable for every student in our school system."

The three trustees and Edith Loring-Kuhanga promised in last fall's election to submit only a "fully funded needs budget" to government. If all four adhere to that position Monday, the nine-member board could split, leaving chairwoman Peg Orcherton to break the tie.

Orcherton and a number of other trustees believe their oath of office requires them to uphold the School Act and bring in a balanced budget.

But Nohr said the law also makes trustees responsible for improving academic achievement. "This is absolutely not possible with this type of budget," she said. "It just has to stop."

Alpha, who teaches in Sooke, agrees. She also voted against last year's budget.

"I know what's going on in the classrooms, and I know that the cuts have been absolutely brutal over the last 10 years - especially for children with special needs," she said. "Until we are actually supporting the real learning needs of the children in the classroom, I won't be voting for a budget that underfunds."

District staff have proposed a balanced budget based on a projected enrolment of 18,573 students in kindergarten to Grade 12 - a drop of 190 students from this year.

The district also expects to post a $350,000 surplus due, in part, to higher than expected revenue from facility rentals and the international student program, as well as savings from green-energy initiatives and fewer employee sick days.

"We had a lot of things work in our favour this year," said superintendent John Gaiptman. "A bad flu season can wipe out a surplus very quickly."

Trustees say the surplus is deceptive, and that years of cuts have badly eroded the school system.

The operating budget for next year is $171 million.

Bev Horsman said a committee has put together a "needs budget" showing that the district could use an extra $48 million to properly serve students.

"It's a budget that details more specifically things that we feel are services the kids really need but we're not able to afford," she said. "It's a list of things that we would provide if we had the money."

Horsman expects to pass a balanced budget Monday, and then bring forward the "needs" budget in May to show the government what is really required.

"It makes us feel like we've done the complete job of passing the budget that we know needs to be passed to make the district functional with the money that's available, and then it outlines what we would do if we could." lkines@timescolonist.com

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