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Victoria school board split over balanced budget issue

Apr 18 2012

The Greater Victoria school board passed the first two readings of a balanced budget Monday in a vote that divided trustees.

Four current or former teachers on the nine-member board opposed the $171 million operating budget for 2012-13 on the grounds that it fails to meet the educational needs of students.

The teachers said years of under-funding by the B.C. Liberal government have undermined the school system.

Five board veterans, however, argued that trustees have a responsibility to provide the best education they can with money provided by the B.C. government.

The third and final vote will be held today by e-mail.

Board chairwoman Peg Orcherton, who voted with the majority, said trustees swear an oath to uphold the School Act and bring in balanced budgets.

“I don’t think there’s any one of the nine of us that disagree that we certainly need more funding,” she said.

But Orcherton said trustees can advocate for that money and still follow proper process.

Trustees Deborah Nohr, who was in the minority, said she hoped that voting against the budget would rally parents behind the underfunding issue and force Education Minister George Abbott to examine gaps in the school system.

She noted that a board committee has put together a “needs” document showing that the district requires an extra $48 million to properly meet the needs of all students.

“I cannot pass this budget, in all good conscience, when it is going to result in serious neglect of many of our students,” Nohr said to applause from the audience at Monday’s board meeting.

Nohr was joined in opposition by trustees Diane McNally, Edith Loring-Kuhanga and Catherine Alpha.

Elaine Leonard, a former board chairwoman, acknowledged the teachers’ concerns, but said that refusing to pass the budget would do more harm than good.

“If you choose to not submit a budget at this point in time, and only do a needs budget, the government waltzes in, fires the board and they put forward whatever they want to balance the budget.”

Leonard said trustees, who are elected to govern and set district priorities, would lose control.

“The strings program will be gone, day-time custodians will be gone,” she said. “They’ll probably close some schools . . . They will make choices that we would not consider good choices for our district.”

Leonard said the board can pass a balanced budget and still request a meeting with the minister to draw attention to the district’s true needs.

“All the things that you would like to do, we can still do after we pass the budget,” Leonard said.

Michael McEvoy said the board has to pass the budget in order to pay teachers and staff. If the board just threw up its hands, “we would have massive layoffs come June,” he said. “We would not get money without a budget. That is obviously a place that none of us want to [go].”

McEvoy, Orcherton, Leonard, Bev Horsman and Tom Ferris voted in favor of the balanced budget.

The board decided unanimously to use a projected $350,000 surplus this year to hire more educational assistants, an additional psychologist to help clear a backlog of students awaiting special needs assessments, and secretarial support for speech pathologists and psychologists, freeing them up to spend more time with students.

The district expects to post the surplus because of 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.