Losing the yellow bus entirely or implementing transportation fees for students in the district were not favourable options by those who turned up for School District 20’s (SD20) transportation consultation Tuesday night.
About 60 people – parents, teachers, bus drivers and even a few children – listened as Greg Luterbach, superintendent of schools, presented eight cost-saving measures suggested to balance next year’s budget now forecasted to carry a $760,000 deficit.
The most radical option to stop bus service entirely would save $1.3 million, but local CUPE president Roger Smith told the board to wipe that one from its list with a promise of his unionized employees walking off the job.
Though the presentation suggested Trail Transit is not interested in busing school kids, nor is it inclined to change its routes or schedule, Luterbach compared public transit bus schedules against the district’s ridership to see if there was a correlation.
Smith pointed to a “contracting out” clause in the union’s contract that stated the only way the board could contract out services or work is if the board doesn’t have the personnel and or equipment to do the job.
“The intent of the wording is not so that the board could eliminate all busing, sell off all the buses, lay off all the drivers and then turn around and say that they will be contracting or subsidizing the busing services to (Trail) Transit,” he explained to the Trail Times Wednesday. “CUPE would view that as an organized action by the board to violate the collective agreement and a form of union busting.”
In such case, he promised he would notify labour relations and support staff would walk off the job and form pickets at all district sites.
He reminded trustees of their duty to advocate for education and challenged them to make a stand against the provincial government. That sentiment was echoed by many parents, who were feeling a sense of deja vu.
“Is it possible for us to ever have a budget that works?” asked Leanne Osokin from Castlegar. Since her child has been in the public education system for the past five years, budget cuts are a reoccurring theme. “It doesn’t matter what we cut because every year we’ll be looking at something else.”
Robson’s Cheryl Vandergaag couldn’t agree more.
“I honestly believe that this fight is never going to end until we all come together, including our board,” she added.
She was nearly in tears when she talked about the lack of financial support.
“I’m very sad, not with you guys but with our ministry and the people that don’t think that our education and our children are important,” she said. “When is the money going to go to our children …?”
The plan presented Tuesday night didn’t suggest anytime soon.
Option 1 would leave 1,850 students without bus service, 100 of those students secondary kids living in rural areas removed from public transportation. The other seven scenarios all include attaching an approximate $200 fee per student (waivers were suggested in some cases) for the service to result in anywhere from just over $200,000 to about $430,000 in savings. The latter options, however, would mean the district would have to make cuts in other areas to balance the budget.
Luterbach described a dim but honest reality, pointing to the district’s $6.2 million in cuts made in the past six years. The school district has trimmed every corner; he said, the most notable school closures and reconfigurations.
He laid out the perks, pitfalls, and uncertainties attached to getting rid of the yellow bus system entirely or implementing a fee structure. Options 2 through 8 explored possibilities which include only busing elementary students, only busing elementary students within assigned school catchment areas or remaining status quo but with fees attached. For a complete list, check out SD20’s website.
One of the possibilities suggested stretching district walk limits, which would result in more students walking far distances to school.
Parents chimed in with safety concerns, liability inquiries, public transportation capacity and school yard parking or lack thereof.
There was also a shared sounding of concern for vulnerable students and or those traveling to the Kootenay-Columbia Learning Centre in East Trail from all corners of the district.
Though the report wasn’t clear where challenged or at-risk students would fit, Luterbach says the district plans on supporting these students and their education.
“Each situation is unique and would need to be looked at individually,” he told the Times.
The crowd questioned the board’s authority to keep an unbalanced budget but was told that wasn’t an option.
Trustees would be fired, Luterbach explained, and others would be hired to finish the job without any in-depth knowledge or connection this area.
Board chair Teri Ferworn admitted she feels sick to her stomach every year budget business starts.
In November, the Board of Trustees released an anticipated budget shortfall of $1.3 million but updated kindergarten numbers, and one-time dual credit student funding dropped this projection to about $1 million. Plus, SD20’s anticipated teacher pension plan contribution reduced by $350,000, meant the dollar figure looming over trustees’ heads was shaved to $650,000.
But more surprises came around spring break when the ministry released its actual 2016/2017 funding announcement, which didn’t include enough funding to pay for promised salary increases that government negotiated with teachers and support staff.
This coupled with a drastically higher price tag for Internet connections (a downloaded cost projected to be $170,000 in SD20) and a new $30,000 expense related to a pooled, sector-wide approach to employment-related arbitration and litigation drove SD20’s projected deficit from $650,000 up to $950,000.
The BC School Trustee Association along with senior district staff across the province shared their concerns with the ministry and on Tuesday, the ministry announced that it would provide more funding to school districts to make up some of that additional shortfall.
Ferworn updated the crowd at the meeting that SD20 will receive approximately $200,000 more, which covers the negotiated teacher and support staff settlement but does not cover the additional new expenses.