PORT HARDY—In an effort provide a long-awaited raise to its support workers and forestall a potential job action, trustees of School District 85 Monday voted on a cost-savings plan that will be forwarded to the B.C. Treasury Board for final approval.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) is without a current contract and is currently in negotiations with the province. In a split vote in a private, in-camera session before Monday’s regular monthly board meeting, the trustees agreed to cuts from “non-essential” services that would free up funds for a pay raise for its CUPE staff.
The government has asked all boards in the province to generate a savings plan out of non-core services, in order to fund a pay increase for support staff,” SD85 secretary-treasurer John Martin said.
Local trustees approved a plan that will be forwarded to the B.C. Treasury Board for final approval, but they were not happy about the “savings plan” mandate, which the government requested of every school district in the province.
“The fact is, there just isn’t much (savings) to find anymore,” said Werner Manke, trustee for Port McNeill. “To me, it’s just patently wrong to say, ‘we’re going to give your people a raise, but we’re not going to pay for it.'”
Manke voted against the proposed plan, but his sentiments were echoed by Port Alice trustee Carol Prescott, who said she voted for the measure.
“I don’t feel we have a lot of choice, because our employees deserve a raise and they’re not going to get one from the government,” said Prescott. “But we can’t keep coming up with savings from thin air.”
Manke suggested the board of trustees meet to see what other options might be available, including but not limited to a letter to the Ministry of Education expressing its reservations. By consensus, trustees agreed, and were backed by verbal support from CUPE 401 president Blaine Gurrie and Vancouver Island North Teachers Association (VINTA) president Fred Robertson.
“Our employees deserve an honest raise, because they haven’t had one and they’re without a contract,” said trustee Jeff Field of Port Hardy, acting chair. “You want this employer to do what’s right, but at some point in time it becomes a shell game.”
Details of the savings plan will not be released until negotiations between CUPE and the government are completed, Martin said.
Martin shared the draft version of the District’s annual financial audit, highlighting a savings of nearly $500,000 through a revision of cost estimates of benefits for retiring employees.
“Actuaries look at ages of our employees and how much we owe them as a result of early retirement payments and sick-leave payoffs,” Martin said. “And they decided all of the work that was done previously was overvalued by $500,000. So, rather than owing employees something like $1.8 million, we really owe them $1.3 million. That’s really helped our bottom line.”
Last year, the government removed funding protection from school districts, meaning districts with decline enrolment like SD85 were going to have to find a way to manage year-over-year reductions in operating budgets through cuts in budget or services.
The prior period adjustment cited by Martin slashes the District’s projected net operations deficit from $575,000 for 2013 to around $100,000, he said.
“This really puts us in a good position, in terms of our managed approach to the loss of our funding protection,” he said.
More good news
Assistant Superintendent Katherine McIntosh informed trustees that, while overall enrolment in the district continues to decline, the numbers of students to start the 2013-14 year districtwide are running well above projection.
“We came in 45 students above our projections,” said McIntosh. “We are still down compared to our overall enrolment last year; we’re down about 33 students. But it’s good news we’re over our projected enrolment.”
The good news is illustrated in staff postings. Alert Bay Elementary School, North Island Secondary School and Eke-Me-Xi School on Tsuquate Reserve will each receive an additional full-time teacher, and Sea View Elementary in Port Alice will receive an additional .25 position.
McIntosh said a couple of other schools show slight dips in enrolment, and those schools will be monitored throughout the first semester to determine if staffing changes need to be made for the second semester.
“However, we did not need to make any transfers or make reductions, so we’re off to a very positive start this year,” she said.