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Coquitlam school district employees bracing for cuts

Port Moody trustee Keith Watkins voted against School District 43
Port Moody trustee Keith Watkins voted against School District 43's 2014/'15 budget at Tuesday's board meeting.
— image credit: TRI-CITY NEWS FILE

Teachers and support workers across School District 43 are bracing for job cuts after trustees gave final approval to the 2014/’15 school operating budget that will result in 150 jobs being lost.

Calling the budget “devastating” and one of the most difficult to be passed in years, trustees approved $267.6 million in operating expenses — and eliminated a potential deficit of $13.4 million — to meet legislated requirements for a balanced budget.

The total budget bylaw, approved with three trustees dissenting, was $301.9 million, including special purpose funds, capital spending and $2.5 million that was needed to repay part of last year’s $10-million deficit.

Trustees Brian Robinson of Coquitlam, Keith Watkins of Port Moody and John Keryluk of Port Coquitlam voted against the budget, citing various concerns, including the addition of a $500,000 contingency fund for emergent issues, which was pared down from $900,000 to save jobs mostly in early learning areas.

Calling the contingency a “philosophical change” from previous years, Watkins said he couldn’t support the budget. Trustees Robinson and Keryluk expressed similar concerns and frustration at what they said was provincial government downloading that was at the heart of the district’s financial troubles.

Keryluk, a retired teacher-librarian, also said it was “wrong” to cut 38 FTE teacher-librarian positions; while libraries will be kept open, the teacher cuts will have the effect of reducing programs for students.

Robinson said he was uncomfortable with the budget, noting: “We still have 150 jobs we’re saying goodbye to.”

But for some trustees who approved the budget bylaw, the spectre of Victoria taking over if the budget was not balanced motivated them to support it.

“I don’t want someone to come in and do it for us,” said Coquitlam Trustee Gail Alty.

TOUGH DECISIONS

Other cuts in the budget include the shutting down of middle school cafeterias, and the elimination of all before and after school busing except for special needs students.

Over two budget meetings, trustees debated small savings they hoped would save jobs, and Tuesday’s public discussion in front of dozens of spectators became an exercise in what superintendent Tom Grant called “Sophie’s Choice” decision-making.

For Coquitlam Trustee Diane Sowden, founder of Children of the Street Society, it was cuts to youth workers that caused her concern and she tried to convince her colleagues to add them to the budget, later withdrawing her motion, saying she didn’t want to pit jobs against jobs.

What trustees did manage to claw back, after unanimously agreeing to reduce the contingency fund by $400,000, was five FTEs. The jobs that will be saved include two teachers who deal with students with learning disabilities, 1.2 FTE teachers for class size and composition and 1.8 FTE positions for a part-time early learning co-ordinator, a part-time elementary gifted program teacher and a part-time speech and language pathologist.

Anmore Trustee Holly Butterfield, who proposed the contingency clawback to save jobs, said keeping teachers who work with special needs children was critical for ensuring students get through school and graduate with their peers.

Gifted children, children with speech, language and behaviour issues will be helped by the change, she said.

“It’s not an easy way through school and they need some support,” Butterfield said.

CONTINGENCY CONTENTIOUS

Gerri Wallis, another Coquitlam trustee, also voted to reduce the contingency so more students could be helped. “I really think we need to support a few more students in the district,” she said.

The contingency fund was a contentious item throughout the budget process and managed to make it through most of the budget meetings because it was a recommendation from a forensic audit into the district’s finances after a deficit was discovered more than a year ago. But in the end, trustees unanimously agreed to reduce the sum and instead put the money into saving jobs.

But trustees Robinson and Watkins were upset the decision to reduce — not eliminate — the fund for emergencies wasn’t made sooner.

“What we did is go through the process and we listened to what people were telling us,” board chair Melissa Hyndes told The Tri-City News as she tried to explain why she changed her mind on the forensic audit recommendation.

Coquitlam Teachers’ Association president Charley King kept his comments brief, using his time to ask trustees to accompany teachers to Victoria to lobby for more funding, something Hyndes agreed to.

Hyndes also called on parents to join a rally in front of Port Moody-Coquitlam MLA Linda Reimer’s office today (Friday) at 3:30 p.m., and a letter about the rally organized by a new group called Parents4BC was supposed to go home with students this week.

Several speakers challenged the board’s decision on the budget and CUPE Local 561 president Dave Ginter expressed concern about a letter he received Tuesday calling for job cuts for staff working in secondary cafeterias, the same day as the budget was to be approved.

Ginter asked why the information came so late in the process, making it difficult for him to offer alternatives to save jobs. But Ginter was told a 14% reduction in cafeteria staffing had been raised at earlier meetings, although the details hadn’t been spelled out.

As members of the audience filed out of the long meeting, Chris King, a teacher and retiring CTA first-vice president, said teachers would be left trying to keep the cuts away from kids even though they had lost 10% of their colleagues to cuts in the last two years.

“I know teachers will do their utmost to make sure that what happens here tonight doesn’t affect students,” Chris King said.

dstrandberg@tricitynews.com

 

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