School districts facing radical surgery The implications for classroom education are staggering, the timeline absurd and the questions far outnumber the answers. That’s a rough summary of where school board trustees are now following Education Minister Art Charbonneau’s announcement last month that the number of school boards in the province will be reduced by April and $50 million in education funding must be cut in the next two years. Locally, $750,000 must be cut from the Howe Sound School Board’s budget. "The cuts in our district in the last four or five years have been heartbreaking," trustee Laurie Vance told a group of parents gathered Monday for an information meeting. "To cut another $750,000 this year..." Roughly 92 per cent of the board’s $25 million budget goes to wages, salaries and benefits. The board has pledged to respect the collective agreements in place, so most of the $750,000 that will be cut will come from the remaining 8 per cent of the budget, which covers things like text books, computers and other operating expenses. The Ministry of Education has specifically targetted special education and aboriginal education programs for cuts, although more targets are expected to be announced in the next few months. The cuts are required because of reductions in federal transfer payments, $450 million less this year and $350 million less next year. Charbonneau has proposed reducing the number of school districts in the province from 75 to 37 as one way of saving money. He believes $30 million can be saved through restructuring and expects districts to find savings by "eliminating duplication, streamlining service delivery and cutting waste and inefficiency. Thirty Million dollars represents less than one per cent of the total education budget, so I’m confident this can be accomplished while protecting core services to students. Funding for the classroom must be the top priority." The minister has proposed aligning school districts with health units, which locally would mean amalgamating the Howe Sound, Sunshine Coast and Powell River school districts. However, the ministry is willing to listen to alternative proposals up until April. Trustees and district staff feel a reduction in the number of school districts is inevitable, even if there is a change in provincial governments. The Liberals have also pledged to reduce the number of school districts. Under Charbonneau’s proposed realignment 17 districts would remain as they are now. Those 17 districts would not be required to cut their budgets this year. At Monday’s meeting parents were told the Howe Sound district has looked at four possible amalgamation scenarios: the proposed amalgamation with Powell River and the Sunshine Coast could save $2.175 million; keeping the Howe Sound School District in tact and saving $750,000; amalgamating with Lillooet and saving $1.5 million; merging with West Vancouver and Sunshine Coast for possible savings of $2.175 million. A fifth alternative was proposed by Craig MacKenzie: amalgamating with West Vancouver. The amalgamation possibilities are muddied by the fact some districts are currently running deficits. The ministry has said that amalgamation of districts must cover any deficits, so districts like Howe Sound and West Vancouver, which have balanced budgets, are being courted. The Sunshine Coast currently has a deficit of about $250,000. West Vancouver does not want to amalgamate with North Vancouver, as it would under Charbonneau’s proposal, because North Vancouver has a deficit of more than $2 million. Powell River is believed to favour an amalgamation with Campbell River. MacKenzie suggested that in addition to financial statements the Howe Sound district consider educational standards in other districts before reaching any decisions. Trustee Ele Clarke pointed out that while amalgamation will save some money there will also be costs, particularly in the form of severance packages. No more than seven trustees will be allowed on any amalgamated school board. The present boards are expected to be disbanded by April 15 — Charbonneau’s deadline for amalgamation proposals — and interim boards appointed. Citizen advisory boards may be consulted. Amalgamated school districts and funding cuts will be implemented by September 1996. Election of trustees will take place next November. Howe Sound district staff are meeting with staff from the West Vancouver and Sunshine Coast districts next week. Another public information meeting will be held in January.