School board off the hook for $600K

Call to find money for raises an 'ask,' not a 'directive'

SYLVIE PAILLARD / Kamloops Daily News
January 15, 2013 01:00 AM

Denise Harper

It seems the Kamloops-Thompson School District does not have to come up with $600,000 after all.

The minister of education's letter asking districts to put aside 1.5 per cent of their budgets for each of the next two years to cover support staff salary raises was an "ask" not a "directive," according to the ministry.

"I'm pleased that saner heads will prevail," said school board chair Denise Harper.

Early last month, anxiety rippled through school boards across the province when Minister Don McRae wrote them with the request. In Kamloops, it added up to $300,000 per year.

The province also said districts couldn't cut service levels. And they had to figure it out by mid-January.

Kamloops-Thompson school trustee Annette Glover, chairwoman of the district's finance committee, said the task was impossible, adding 90 per cent of the district's budget pays for staffing.

"It's ridiculous that they'd even be asking for that," she said.

Many of the province's 60 school boards responded with strongly worded letters along the same lines.

And late last week, there was a sense of vindication when B.C. School Trustees Association president Michael McEvoy emailed boards to say that McRae apologized over the matter during a Jan. 3 meeting.

McRae's apology led to the belief that school boards' complaints were heard, she said.

"My expectation is because the minister received a potential of 60 letters from boards saying, 'What are you talking about? We can't do this.' That he may have indicated he was sorry to have created this," said Harper.

But exactly what that apology meant - whether the province would pay for salary raises after all or push back the deadline - was unclear.

It turns out the minister was sorry for the way the matter was handled, not for asking districts for 1.5 per cent of their budgets.

But it was an "ask" not a directive, said a ministerial spokesperson, pointing to the portion of the minister's letter that started all the dismay.

"I am requesting that all boards develop their own savings plans to identify savings within the principles of the (co-operative gains) mandate that would reach the target of 1.5 per cent of support staff compensation in their district," wrote McRae.

Trustees took this as an order, however.

"We interpreted as being fairly prescriptive," said Harper.

In an interview with CFTK TV in Terrace on Jan. 8, McRae said he's received many letters from boards. Without specifying their tone, his only comment on the correspondence was "fair enough," adding he "wants to find out their answers and thoughts."

But McRae remained steadfast on the need for employers to work with the province to fulfill the co-operative gains mandate.

A departure from the net zero mandate, it allows for "modest" wage increases by handing a portion of the onus to employers.

"We'll be talking to BCPSEA (B.C. Public School Employers Association), we'll be talking to school board trustees association to see what they wish to do next," said McRae.

"But again it's a school governance model. The ministry of education works with the school board trustees."

Kamloops-Thompson School District Supt. Terry Sullivan said although the criteria set out by the province was impossible to achieve, his office will be working diligently to find ways of providing for support staff salary raises.

Especially since they "didn't do as well as other people in the education sector" during the last round of bargaining.

"I've always said that we feel our support staff are deserving of the increase," said Sullivan. "We want to turn over every stone to ensure that we can try to find some way to give it to them."

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