Tonight the Vancouver School Board trustees will vote on the proposed 2016/17 balanced budget. To balance the budget there are $24 million in cuts, including cuts to literacy teachers, special education, teacher librarians, gifted programs, teacher mentors, career information assistants, secondary teachers, vice principals, mini schools and band and strings. The scale and scope of the cuts will affect every school and student in our district, and will be particularly painful in neighbourhoods where parents can’t afford to fill in the gaps.
I’ve agonized over the seemingly impossible choice of either voting to cut $24 million from our budget or voting against the balanced budget. Without a balanced budget the Minister of Education will dismiss our locally elected board and appoint an official trustee who will balance the budget and run our school district for up to two and a half years. Either way $24 million in cuts will be made in Vancouver schools.
I would love to vote against a balanced budget to take a moral stand against a provincial government that is drastically underfunding BC’s public education. I would love to believe that in doing so the message to all provincial parties would be so strong that stable, adequate and predictable public education funding becomes the key issue in the next provincial election. This would be wonderful for students across BC.
However I must weigh this desire against the full consequences for our students of allowing the provincial government to appoint an official trustee who would run our unique and diverse district with no accountability to Vancouver voters. The official trustee will have the full powers of a board to set policy, close schools and sell land. Our board has taken a strong position on not selling entire school sites to save them for future Vancouver students in our growing city. It is unlikely an official trustee would have the same strong commitment to social justice and equity of access to education - especially for our most vulnerable students - as our current elected board.
It’s shameful that public education is so underfunded in our wealthy province. And it’s frustrating that previous Vision majority boards have used short-term financial fixes and drained reserve funds. This year we are facing the consequences of Vision's short-term decisions as they led to $18 million of our shortfall, with the remaining $6 million coming from reduced provincial funding.
At the Vancouver School Board, I can be the swing vote as our board of nine trustees has one Green, four Vision and four NPA trustees. I’m still considering this very difficult decision, the most difficult one I’ve faced as a trustee. I will not use our students as pawns in political strategies or one-upmanship as they deserve much better than that. As for every decision I make as a school board trustee I will focus on what is best for our students, or in this case what is least worst for them in both the short and long term, and cast my vote accordingly.
Janet Fraser is a Green Party of Vancouver School Trustee elected in 2014. She has three children in Vancouver’s public schools.