A Mad Way to Spend Money

Vancouver Sun, Wednesday, January 11, 2006
Catherine Evans, Chair, BC Society for Public Education

“March Madness” struck early this year in every public school and school district in the province. All are scrambling to spend $56 million before the province closes its books on March 31. This money, clawed back in November as savings from the teachers’ job action, was quietly made available a week before classes ended in December on condition that spending plans be submitted by January 10 and the money actually spent by March 31.

Even in an age of instant communication, it takes time to sort out this kind of announcement. For schools – on holidays for half the time available – there were really only four days in January to draw up plans and get them to the districts. Parent participation within this timeframe – a supposed requirement of the government’s action – was next to impossible.

In Victoria, this kind of frenzied behavior is usually confined to late in the fiscal year when ministries know whether or not they have leftover funds. It’s the crazy way government budgets work – hence “March Madness.”

The Ministry of Education already knows it has extra cash – lots of it – courtesy of the salaries that teachers and others gave up to make a point. Unfortunately many the items schools most urgently need cannot be paid for with this money. The one-time nature of the money coupled with the short timeframe means that it cannot be used for seismic upgrades, new playgrounds, or salaries for any of the people that are in short supply, e.g., teacher-librarians, special education assistants, and playground supervisors.

So how will the money be used? The intent is that most of it will go to textbooks, learning materials, computers and library books. These are very necessary and very expensive. In fact, pent-up demand from more than 12 years of budget constraint could easily absorb many more millions in spending.

But is throwing one-time, short-term money at schools really a good way to run a healthy school system? Most would say, and I would be forced to agree, that having this money is better than not having it. But are they also saying that schools only get money to buy books when there is unexpected cash available? What happened to long-term, stable funding that allows schools to purchase new textbooks and other resources in an orderly and predictable manner? Teachers should not have to strike in order for students to have books. Our students deserve better.

BC Society for Public Education

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