NEW WESTMINSTER - Education workers and students are paying the price for ballooning deficits in Coquitlam and New Westminster. The districts have announced layoffs of CUPE support staff that the union says will severely affect the quality and even safety of education and services.
A $12.6-million deficient in Coquitlam brought the layoff of 51 CUPE employees, including those that deal with the most vulnerable students. In New West a projected $5.5 million shortfall led the board to send out layoff notices last week to 37 CUPE employees including 27 special education assistants.
In Coquitlam, chronic government underfunding has been overshadowed by what the School District Board of Trustees has called fiscal “incompetence.” The result, says CUPE Local 561 president Dave Ginter, “is that these cuts will affect our most vulnerable and high-risk students.” Ginter says that the loss of youth workers and community support coordinators is “devastating.”
“In our district we have had three suicides and are told there have been 180 attempted suicides since September,” says Ginter adding, “now they are cutting staff from the very programs that keep some of our most troubled students connected to support. If we lose these programs we risk losing students.”
In New West, CUPE Local 409 president Marcel Marsolais says years of underfunding by the BC Liberals has pushed the district to the point where students, teachers, parents and education workers are all taking the fall.
“Inadequate funding coupled with a freeze on per student funding by the province has many school boards across BC in similar circumstances,” says CUPE BC K-12 coordinator Bill Pegler. “The BC Liberals have warned school districts that they won’t even pay for rising costs such as increases in sewer and water rates and insurance premiums while directing them to fund any overdue wage adjustments without affecting programming or students. Put in this impossible box, districts like New West are resorting to layoffs and that does affect students and programs.”
Marsolais echoes Ginter, calling the layoffs “devastating” for staff and students. “There is simply no way that you can slash the staff dealing with special needs students, slash the workers keeping our schools clean and safe and running smoothly and expect the same quality of education for our kids. The cuts to special education assistants has immediate and direct effects - which of our special needs students deserve less?”
“This is traumatic news for parents in New West - budget considerations should never come before the rights to a quality education for our special needs children. For the education assistants who still have a job it will mean longer unpaid hours and less ability to maintain the quality of care,” says Marsolais.
The cuts come in the wake of stalled contract talks between 27,000 CUPE education workers and the provincial government. Talks ended in April when the BC Public School Employers’ Association admitted it didn’t even have a mandate from the government to actually settle and sign a contract. All 57 CUPE K-12 locals expect to have taken strike votes by the end of this month with job action probable in the fall.