The cupboards are bare - that's the message the New Westminster board of education is sending the Ministry of Education in response to the province's request to develop "savings plans" to help pay for wage increases for support staff at schools.
The board voted unanimously in favour of sending a letter to Education Minister Don McRae, who told districts last 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.
It's a request that the cash-strapped school district is unable to achieve, trustees said at Tuesday's board of education meeting, where the issue was discussed.
The motion stated that the board write to the minister to say, while it values fair compensation to all its employees, it is not possible for the district, this year or next year, to develop a savings plan to fund support staff wages increases, and the board "respectfully request the ministry to withdraw their request."
Trustee MaryAnn Mortensen wanted to change the wording on the last line.
"I have a problem with the last line ... that's not likely to happen," she said. "The rest I'm perfectly fine with it."
Trustee Casey Cook disagreed with Mortensen, arguing that the strong wording was necessary.
"Unless the second part is there, quite frankly, the first part is merely rhetoric," he said. "We have to take a strong stance.
"If we don't put up opposition to this, we are going to have to cut in the classroom," he said.
Trustee Jonina Campbell, who introduced the motion, agreed with Cook. She said she read through letters from other school districts, and they had "colourfully" strong wording opposing the minister's request.
"I haven't seen one of them say they can find the money in the 2012 budget and next year," she said.
Mortensen said she wasn't against strong wording, but felt the letter should say the board respectfully declines the request.
"I think we need to make it very clear that we don't have the money, we're not going to find that money," Mortensen 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.
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. Support staff includes education assistants and maintenance, custodial and clerical staff.
At a recent board of education meeting, board of education chair Michael Ewen estimated the increase would cost the district about $150,000 a year.
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