The Vancouver School Board should consider closing schools if it can’t save enough money by conserving energy, Education Minister Peter Fassbender told the Courier Wednesday.
“I’m sure that one of the things that [the VSB] is continuing to do is look at additional savings,” he said.
“But I also know if they’ve got schools that are under capacity, closing a school will have a significant savings on a number of fronts including energy costs and so on. So I’m sure that while they may not want to look at those kinds of initiatives, I think they have to look at everything.”
His comment came in response to complaints by VSB chairperson Patti Bacchus that cash-strapped Vancouver public schools can’t afford B.C. Hydro rate hikes announced Tuesday. Bacchus noted the Vancouver School Board made B.C. Hydro’s Top 10 list for electricity conservation in the province in 2010 and 2011.
“Power Smart is not a program that begins and ends,” Fassbender said in response to this observation.
Bacchus found Fassbender’s Power Smart saving suggestions “a bit disingenuous.”
“He knows the kind of financial pressure we’re under,” she said.
“He knows that we’re $28 million [short] and counting and he knows what his government’s own finance committee report has recommended and acknowledged, and that is that these kind of cost pressures accumulate and have created a real challenge for school districts.”
(The VSB estimated a budget shortfall of $24.3 million last December but the shortfall was reduced to $7.9 million.)
The school board considered closing five elementary schools in 2010. Staff projected closing all five would save $1.4 million in facility, utility and office and custodial staffing costs.
Bacchus said closing schools in a city with a growing population, where additional residential density is proposed, doesn’t make sense over the long term.
She said the board is trying to find other uses for underused spaces.
“What we heard emphatically is that [nearby communities] depend on those schools,” Bacchus said.
“Many of those families don’t have cars, they live in poverty, they rely on public housing, they rely on the childcare that is available there. We would be compounding the challenges of the people who are most at risk in this city if we were to take away their neighbourhood school.”
For significant cost savings, teachers, administrators and school support staff would have to lose their jobs, Bacchus said.
She said the district pays approximately $3 million annually to B.C. Hydro. Increases have been roughly estimated at an additional $50,000 to $75,000 this year, $300,000 for 2014-2015 and $450,000 for 2014-2016. “We’ve already budgeted for this year and allocated our money in addition to having to absorb the support staff [wage] increases,” Bacchus said.
The all-party Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services recommended in a report released Nov. 14 that the provincial government: “Develop a comprehensive capital plan for educational facilities that takes into account increased maintenance and aging school facility upgrades; and continue the seismic upgrading program.”
Bacchus wants the government to implement this recommendation and to increase funding to the 2014 public schools budget to prevent staff, service and resource cuts.
“In every sector of our economy, everyone has basically said if you give us more money that’s going to help us manage our way forward,” Fassbender said.
He said the government would consider the report’s recommendations while also focusing on balancing the provincial budget.