Sunday April 20, 2014

Rising costs could close schools

Increased hydro rates could be the last straw, trustee says

A hydro rate increase and other offloaded costs could see schools close in the Kamloops-Thompson School District and students pay to ride the bus, a school trustee said Thursday.

"We may have to look at school closures and find any other way to find the money to be able to pay for all of these things," said school board vice chairwoman Kathleen Karpuk.

"This isn't a little thing anymore. We don't have room within our existing budget to trim back another four or five per cent."

Karpuk's comments came as Energy Minister Bill Bennett turned down a request by the B.C. School Trustees Association for a special deal or exemption from looming B.C. Hydro rate increases, which are forecast to rise by 40 per cent over the next decade.

Bennett said Thursday that if he grants such a deal to school boards, then taxpayers, businesses and industrial power users must make up the difference through even higher rates.

A nine-per-cent increase is set to take effect next April — the first of five years of hikes that total more than 25 per cent.

The trustees association said the higher rate in April will increase hydro costs at 1,600 public schools to $39.6 million from $35.5 million; likely sparking program cuts for students.

Association president Teresa Rezansoff said the nine per cent increase means school boards will have to find an extra $4.1 million, and an estimated $29 million for increased hydro costs over the next five years.

The Kamloops-Thompson School District has reached a point where there's nothing left to trim. Karpuk said the hike in hydro and CUPE's wage increase — which school districts must pay for — will cost the district $1 million during the next budget cycle.

In five years, the school district will pay an addition $250,000 a year for electricity. Karpuk said that's the equivalent of three teaching positions.

When the school district went through reconfiguration three years ago, trustees thought they were done closing schools, she said. Five schools were shut during that process.

"Now there's been enough downloading of costs that we're going to have to look at closing more schools simply because we can't afford to keep them open anymore," she said.

The first school could close September 2015. Karpuk doesn't know how many would be put on the chopping block.

School district Supt. Terry Sullivan said a savings plan is in development, but declined to comment further because the strategy isn't complete.

Closing schools and charging students to ride the bus makes public education less accessible, said Kamloops-Thompson Teachers' Association president Jason Karpuk.

"To charge them to be bused because their neighbourhood school's closed, that has to anger the public," he said. "It's not right."

Public education already runs lean, and nothing more can be cut without impacting students, he said.

The school district pondered a $20-per-month fee for school buses in 2009, but reconsidered when the Central-Okanagan School District failed to recoup a deficit by charging fees.

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