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Cowichan school board poised to pass illegal deficit budget

May 09 2012

The Cowichan Valley school board appears poised to pass a deficit budget and risk being fired by the B.C. government.

The board is slated to give third and final reading to a budget next week that falls more than $3.7 million in the red. The first two readings passed by a slim 5-4 margin.

Board chairwoman Eden Haythornthwaite, who voted with the majority, said in an interview Tuesday that the district has slashed $10.6 million from its budget since 2009, and has no place left to cut.

It faced further cuts this year due to declining enrollment and government grants that fail to cover rising costs, she said.

Instead, the board opted for a "restoration" budget to return some of what has been lost, including teacherlibrarian time, intensive behaviour teachers and custodial help, she said.

"We're doing this because, as a board of trustees, we can't in good conscience continue with the cuts agenda," Haythornthwaite said.

Opponents argue that the School Act requires boards to approve balanced budgets each year, and that trustees swear to uphold that law.

Trustee Candace Spilsbury, who voted against a deficit budget, warned that the province could dismiss the board and appoint a trustee to run the district.

"A public trustee from Victoria does not have the same commitment to the students, to public education in Cowichan Valley that we do as community members," she said. "I feel it's abandoning our students to abandon our voice."

In a joint letter to the board, superintendent Joe Rhodes and secretarytreasurer Robert Harper also urged caution, noting that the district has improved its graduation rate despite budget cuts in the past decade. They say a balanced budget is possible.

"We feel obligated on moral, ethical and legal grounds to caution the Board of Education against passing a deficit budget for the 2012-2013 year," they wrote. "It is contrary to the School Act."

Haythornthwaite said trustees were well aware of the risks. "We're not idiots," she said. "I mean, we can read the School Act as well as anybody."

But she said the same law that requires balanced budgets also requires trustees to provide a quality education to students.

"So I guess you can see there's a little bit of a contradiction there," she said.

"If anyone thinks that we are doing this casually or that we don't give a damn, they're mistaken. We know perfectly well that we may be fired, and if we are fired, that there will be a public trustee appointed to this position. - The point is that if we are not prepared to stand up for our community, we might as well not be here."

Haythornthwaite said she hopes that by taking a stand, trustees would be able to negotiate with the government and highlight the district's needs. "These are not things that we want as enhancements; these are things that we had up to two or three years ago, in some cases last year," she said. "We're just trying to get some of it back."

Education Minister George Abbott, however, has made clear that he is unlikely to tolerate a deficit budget. Asked about the Cowichan Valley situation in the legislature Monday, he said the district's operating money has increased $5 million since 2001-2002 despite a drop of nearly 3,000 students.

"The school district has a responsibility to deliver a balanced budget," he said.

"We believe they're the only district in the province that is embarked on that particular journey [to a deficit], and the School Act is very clear about what will occur if they're not providing a balanced budget."

lkines@timescolonist.com

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