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Victoria school board passes balanced budget

Apr 18 2012

The Greater Victoria school board has approved a balanced budget for next year 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 underfunding 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 the money provided by the B.C. government.

The first and second readings of the budget passed by a 5-4 margin at a board meeting Monday night. The third and final reading passed 5-2 in a poll vote by email Tuesday, with two trustees abstaining.

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.

Trustee 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 had 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 audience applause at Monday's board meeting.

Trustee Elaine Leonard, a former board chairwoman, acknowledged Nohr's 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.

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

"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 needs.

Trustee Michael McEvoy said the board had to pass the budget in order to pay teachers and staff. If the trustees just threw up their 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 favour of the balanced budget. Nohr was joined in opposition by Diane McNally, Edith Loring-Kuhanga and Catherine Alpha. (Loring-Kuhanga and McNally did not take part in Tuesday's final email vote, even though it was held at McNally's insistence.)

Orcherton said the vote ensures that a projected $350,000 surplus this year could be used to enhance programs and services.

The board decided unanimously Monday 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.

The surplus is from 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.

lkines@timescolonist.com