Is there enough money flowing to public education?
It’s fairly clear the overwhelming majority of people within the system think not.
It’s one of the pillars of the stance people take when they talk about improving educational outcomes for our children. Ian Johnson, president of the Sooke Teachers’ Association, is one of them.
“When you look at the data that’s collected, I think we’re doing as well as anybody,” he says. “It’s generally agreed by everybody, I think, that under the conditions we are forced to teach in right now, we do a very good job. Could it be better? Absolutely. We could do better than what we’re doing right now, but that’s influenced by factors that are outside our control.”
The most important of those, he adds, is the funding of public education provincewide.
Government estimates show that the province subsidized public education to the tune of $8,654 per pupil in 2013-14. That’s well below Alberta’s figure of $10,111 or the $11,266 Ontario provides.
Those discrepancies, Johnson says, illustrate the shortage of resources B.C. teachers have to deal with increasing demands, such as a higher number of students with special needs – those requiring personalized learning plans and additional supports – integrated within every classroom.
The long and short of it is the lack of funding is taking its toll on teachers, he says.
“It’s gotten to the point where I don’t know that we can actually cope much longer with what we’re dealing with. It is, on many levels, a very grim circumstance. I deal with teachers all the time who are at their emotional wits end. They’re done. They can’t cope. The stress is extraordinary. It would be like giving a surgeon an operating room and telling him he doesn’t have a scalpel. He’s going to say, ‘Wait a minute, you haven’t given me the tools to do the job,’ and you’re going to say, ‘just go in there and do the best you can.’”
He says that’s why parents are seeing an increase in substitute instructors teaching their children more regularly. When teachers come to him saying they’re exhausted and are having difficulty coping, there’s one prevailing message he has for them.
“You can’t teach if you can’t take care of yourself,” he tells them. “Save yourself first, and then go back in there, and we’ll attempt to come to grips with whatever the circumstances are. I think that’s true for anybody, in any job, quite frankly.”
It’s not that Johnson blames the school district for the situation. SD62 only has control over where the “not enough” is allocated, he says.
District superintendent Jim Cambridge agrees with that assessment.
“It’s a matter of balancing and rebalancing the priority that we place on things,” he says, adding that if the district puts the priority too heavily in one area one year, something else suffers.
“It’s not like there’s extra money. We’re spending every dollar we get. So if we’re not spending it in the right way, we can talk about that and I’ll take responsibility. But I can’t make any more money so I can’t add an education assistant without taking that amount from somewhere else, for example.”
Just this month, the district is putting forward the budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year. Despite massive cuts being felt in districts all over the province, SD62 has found $260,000 to put back into the system. It won’t make up for the $4.1 million in cuts made over the previous two years, but at least it’s going back into the pie rather than just sitting in the bank.
“There’s just not enough there,” Johnson sighs, resigned to this fact. One can hear the dejected and disheartened tone in his voice. “It’s heartbreaking, and it’s taking its toll. It’s bad enough when you don’t feel appreciated by your employer.”
He clarifies that he isn’t pointing a finger at the district – he means the Ministry of Education, “(When you’re) not given the resources to do your job effectively, over time, it’s just …” he trails off.
Wendy Hobbs, chair of the SD62 board of trustees, is also resigned to the fact they won’t have any more money to shift around anytime in the foreseeable future.
“Making the pie bigger has been advocated for years. It’s not going to work,” she admits. She adds that if they at least knew what size the pie was going to be, it would be helpful.
“(The province needs to) quit making us do year-to-year budgets,” she says. “We have been fighting for that for years. If we knew what we were going to get for the next three years, we could work with all of the groups to say, ‘here’s what we’ve got, let’s work towards something.’ But this year-to-year budgeting and the unforeseen cuts doesn’t help us with our day-to-day working of the district.
“If you take out a mortgage on your house, you know what you’re paying from year to year for the length of the term. If we knew that …”
Her words hang in the air as though the answer is obvious, which it is when considering that prioritizing and re-prioritizing is what they do. Doing that over multiple years would make the process a whole lot smoother, she says, and stakeholders would be much more accepting of budgets if they could see when the pendulum was going to swing in their direction.
Not everyone sees the lack of resources as the main issue, however.
“To me it’s not about money,” says Ray Miller, principal of Belmont secondary.
“It’s about intelligently designing systems so that they integrate together and are effective and efficient. You can complain all you want about the money, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get any more. So you might as well do the best you can with what you have. I think we should always, as an organization, look for ways of improving student learning. That is our one and only guiding principle.
“We can’t get caught up in traditions and patterns of the past. Especially today. Especially in this century.”
Find out how he and other stakeholders feel the district can do that in the final part of this series, coming in Friday’s Gazette.