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April 8, 2013

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Province pockets $15.6m from cash-strapped K-12

VICTORIA – The BC Ministry of Education website brags it’s “maintaining” K-12 funding for school operating grants, but fails to mention what it’s doing with $15.6 million earmarked for school boards. 

Every year, the province reserves a portion of operating grants to school districts so that, when final enrolments are known, district-by-district funding adjustments can be made.  This is known as the holdback fund and this year the fund has $26.3 million in it.  Traditionally, boards get this additional money, keeping it in the system for school programs. But this year the government decided it would throw $15.6 million of that money at its budget deficit.

The province withdrew $15.6 million from the holdback to use as a “pre-payment” on next year’s Annual Facilities Grants (AFG), a fund used for the maintenance of school buildings and physical facilities (and normally funded through a separate ministry allocation).  The net result is that $15.6 million intended for programs is now lost to the school system.  That money will lower next year’s spending obligations - reducing next year’s provincial deficit by $15.6 million.

CUPE National Researcher John Malcolmson calls it “a funding download, pure and simple” adding that this kind of behind-the-scenes transaction “has pushed our public school system deeper into the abyss created by chronic underfunding.” 

According to Malcolmson, “this decision was only spelled out in letters sent to boards of education announcing next year’s preliminary operating grant levels.” The March 14 letter from Assistant Deputy Minister Keith Miller adds it up this way:  “an additional $26.3 million became available in the operating grants holdback. The ministry will be providing $15.6 million of this as a prepayment of the 2013/14 Annual Facility Grant allocation later this month.”

This is not the first time BC’s Liberal government has used the holdback for its own purposes. In 2006/07, some $22 million in holdback funding simply vanished into thin air.  In late 2009, the ministry of education unilaterally cut AFG funding in half.   Ministry policy on the AFG specifies a list of intended areas for grant use, including roof replacement, mechanical system upgrades, electrical system work and technology upgrades. Provincial deficit reduction isn’t on that list.

“This diversion of operating funds comes at a time when school boards around the province are having to decide which programs and services to cut just to make their own budgets balance,” says CUPE BC K-12 coordinator Bill Pegler. 

“That the province would divert money intended for school programs into provincial deficit reduction reflects how out of touch this government is with the funding crisis afflicting our school system,” he adds.


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