Friday, November 14, 2003

By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Christy Clark either lacks financial skills, or has chosen to pick a pointless fight with school trustees.
The education minister criticized school boards because financial statements show they finished last year with a collective $145-million surplus.
Parents aren't happier with the school system, she concludes, because school trustees are hoarding money instead of spending it on children. "We allocated an extra $92 million in the last two years to school districts and still parents are telling me they don't see that in improved services in classrooms," Ms. Clark says. "Now we know why. There's $145 million that's been socked away."
I hope she's not serious. Even a cursory look at the facts shows the claim makes little sense.
More than one-third of the surplus is Ms. Clark's doing. With only weeks left in the last fiscal year the province came up with an unexpected extra $50 million for schools. That's great, but to criticize school districts because they didn't rush out to blow the money is ridiculous.
That leaves less than $100 million as the year-end surplus, barely two per cent of spending and hardly a fat cushion for districts trying to avoid deficits.
Ms. Clark should also know that almost all the supposedly surplus money was already committed at year-end. My local school district had, by Ms. Clark's reckoning, a wasteful $2.9-million surplus.
But about $1.2 million was money received too late to be spent effectively within the fiscal year. Another $1.2 million had been saved by schools, through cost-cutting measures, and set aside for needed equipment. Other money has been reserved for purchases that had already been made, even though the invoice haven't been received.
Other school districts have similar logical, prudent explanations.
So how to explain Ms. Clark's puzzlement about why additions to school funding haven't produced any greater parent satisfaction?
The answer is simple. The increases - barely one per cent a year - aren't enough to cover increasing costs, and don't allow districts to maintain existing services to students. The education ministry budget was $4.8 billion in the Liberals' first year in office. It's $4.8 billion today.
In that time teachers' wages - under a government-imposed contract - were raised 7.5 per cent. The government only funded one-third of the increase. Other costs have also outstripped funding increases. So trustees have had to cut programs, close schools and shift to four-day school weeks.
Cost increases - not for new services, but to maintain the existing ones - were greater than the districts' revenue. They made spending cuts. And that's why Ms. Clark is hearing concern from parents.
It's hard to see why Ms. Clark would start this public spat. Trustees, for the most part, have grumbled about inadequate funding, but then tried their best to make them work.
And while effective spending is still seen as important, the political tide appears to be turning toward more funding for schools.
Ontario's former Conservative government reviewed its three-year education funding freeze before the recent election, and found that it resulted in school boards cutting services to students each year. The government pledged to restore the needed money - about $600 million a year - but voters still turfed them out.
In Alberta, Ralph Klein has promised to act on a report from a government commission that called for an immediate $137-million funding increase to hire more teachers, and a $500-million annual spending increase over the next five years (The proposed Alberta standards would call for much smaller classes than in B.C.)
Even in B.C., a legislative committee dominated by Liberal MLAs sounded a warning as this year's budget was being prepared. "The shortage of funds is reaching a critical stage for rural schools and schools-based programs in urban areas," said their report on budget priorities.
If parents are complaining to the minister, she should listen.
And she should acknowledge that it's the government's funding decisions, not some year-end

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