Another big fight is brewing in the education system, but unlike the last dustups this one doesn't involve the B.C. Teachers Federation going to war with the provincial government.
The government is a party in this fight as well, but this time it will be school boards facing off against the B.C. Liberals.
Many school districts have been saying for years that the system is underfunded, even when funding increases and enrolment drops. It's been death by a thousand cost increases - everything from rising MSP premiums, inflation, employee benefits, heating cost etc. - that have left school boards scrambling to table balanced budgets every year.
But this year a new wrinkle has been added to the mix, and it's potentially a very expensive one.
Education Minister Don McRae has written to school board chairs, telling them they must file a "savings plan" with him that will show how costs arising from anticipated wage increases for unionized support staff will be paid for under existing funding arrangements.
McRae has informed them the so-called "co-operative gains" mandate governing all government contract talks - which dictates that wage increases can be given only if enough internal savings are made to ensure the wage hikes don't inflate the bottom line - will apply to upcoming negotiations with support staff unions, primarily CUPE locals. The move has outraged school trustees.
B.C. School Trustees Association president Michael McEvoy fired off an angry response to McRae, telling him most school boards are already facing deficits and that there are no operational savings in the system. In fact, any belt-tightening that occurs will be done simply to meet existing cost pressures, let alone wage increases. Any further "savings" on top of the existing fiscal problems will inevitably hurt services for students, McEvoy argues.
McRae has informed the boards he wants them to find "savings" equivalent to a 1.5 per cent wage increase for their support staff employees. The financial impact of that varies from district to district, but the Vancouver school board estimates a two-year contract under those terms would cost the district almost $5 million, while the Victoria board pegs its costs to be $1.5 million over two years.
To put those numbers in context, the Vancouver board estimates its funding shortfall is already between $15 million to $25 million.
That shortfall includes such items as $4.2 million for salary and benefits increases, $3.5 million for an increase in pension plan payments for teachers and more than $7 million in potential "holdback funds" for next year.
While school boards routinely scream about underfunding every year and yet still seem to miraculously balance their budget nevertheless, the additional task of having to find money for wage increases may be the breaking point for a number of them. Evidence of how serious a problem this new demand poses for trustees is the fact that the chair of the employers' bargaining group has also written to the education minister, telling him it is impossible for boards to meet his call to find new savings.
Melanie Joy, chairwoman of the B.C. Public School Employers' Association, is also the chairwoman of her school district in the Kootenays. She has warned McRae that her district already faces a shortfall of $1.1 million and that a CUPE wage increase would cost a further $300,000, leading to cuts to education programming. This festering problem may not be confined to the education system. In fact, all parts of the larger public sector may be affected by how the co-operative gains concept plays out.
Nurses, health workers and university employees have all received wage increases without new funding being added to their budgets. We have yet to see any details of how those wage hikes will be covered without any reduction in services in those sectors.
If the impact is both substantive and negative - taking the form of layoffs, program and service cuts for example - it may further cloud the already dim re-election chances of the B.C. Liberals. In the meantime, get ready for a loud and raucous screaming match between this province's 60 school boards, and what could become one very unpopular education minister.
McRae wants those savings plans on his desk by mid-January. As it stands now, I'd be surprised if all boards comply. Open defiance seems to be on the horizon.
Keith.Baldrey@globalnews.ca (Les Leyne is on vacation)