The Minister of Education recently sent a letter requesting school districts to develop "savings plans" to help pay for wage increases for support staff at schools - a move that will put even more financial pressure on the cash-strapped New Westminster school district.
Education Minister Don McRae told districts earlier this month that the government wants districts to "free up funding" from within existing budgets. He wants school districts to find 1.5 per cent of support staff compensation over two years to help offset the cost of salary increases.
But trustee Casey Cook said finding the extra money is impossible for the district, given it's current financial reality.
"We simply can't continue to find that funding," said Cook. "We simply can't do it, it's impossible without us cutting things in the classroom.
"When you're in a deficit situation like we are, there are no extra pots of money lying around," he said.
The district is facing a $2.8-million deficit from last year and is projecting another at least $2.2-million deficit for this school year if it doesn't start slicing staffing, services and supplies to balance the books.
Cook noted the opposition to the plan from school districts throughout the province.
"I think it's pretty unanimous from all of the school districts ... that most districts aren't able to do that," Cook said.
Despite the term "mandate," the Education Ministry has stressed that this is a request to school boards, not a demand.
"I recognize that boards of education also face fiscal pressures at this time and have varying capacity to generate savings," McRae wrote, acknowledging that finding savings will be difficult in some cases.
New Westminster's support staff are represented by the Canadian Union of Public
Employees, Local 409. President Marcel Marsolais could not be reached at press time.
Support staff includes education assistants and maintenance, custodial and clerical staff.
Board of education chair Michael Ewen said the board hasn't yet taken a position on the Education Minister's request.
"My understanding is that the BCSTA (British Columbia School Trustees Association) is trying to get a unified position going forward," Ewen said.
The group is in contact with the government and expressed its concern that this will be an "impossible task to meet," he said.
"I looked at the issue and thought, 'This can be put on the backburner till early January,'" Ewen said.
He also warned that the teachers' pension increases are on the horizon. He questioned whether covering the support staff increase would mean school districts would have to come up with extra funds for teachers pay increases, which are substantially larger.
"If the table is set so that school boards have to find the money within their budgets, then that's going to present some significant difficulties," he said.
At a recent board of education meeting, Ewen estimated the increase would cost the district about $150,000 a year.
- with files from Jennifer Moreau
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