PRINCE GEORGE—A community forum on cuts to public education that drew 150 people here on April 20 concluded that the K-12, colleges, and university education systems have been cut to the bone after more than a decade of chronic underfunding and cannot sustain further cuts.
Speaker after speaker chronicled challenges in all educations sectors caused by underfunding. Dale Laluk, CUPE 3799 Vice President from the University of Northern British Columbia, ably emcee’d the Education Forum, which was sponsored by Prince George’s CUPE education locals 3742, 3799, 4951, and 4991.
Kevin Rose, CUPE provincial K-12 sector co-coordinator, gave an overview of the depth of underfunding. Rose noted that K-12 school districts are trying to cope with a $29-million shortfall in administrative funding while post-secondary institutions are facing $50 million in administrative cuts.
“This government would rather give a $200 million tax break to those earning more than $150,000 a year than properly fund education,” said Rose. “This is about priorities, this isn’t about money.”
After enjoying a dinner prepared onsite at the College of New Caledonia (CNC), participants heard from panel members. Presidents from all four CUPE locals and representatives of faculty unions shared the podium.
Karen Wong, president of CUPE 3742 (school district support staff) spoke passionately about the K-12 sector. She noted that 22 schools have closed in the last 14 years because of budget cuts and talked about how the K-12 sector is running on a skeleton staff with nowhere left to cut.
“In School District 57 there is no ‘low-hanging fruit.’ There’s nothing left to cut,” said Wong. “We did that years ago and the students and staff are suffering for it.
“Youth care and EAs are being scheduled in five minute intervals. How can you run to a classroom and work with a student and give them only five minutes of your precious time? That’s what cuts have done to us.”
Wong put 14 years of education funding cuts into perspective of a student who started kindergarten in 2001. If that child completed Grade 12 and perhaps went to college or university for a few years, she explained, “they’ve lived and studied in academic poverty for all of their school years.”
Brian Trotter, president of CUPE 4991 (maintenance and grounds workers) described the government’s treatment of public education as shameful. He spoke about the high costs of closed facilities and detailed the many maintenance requirements to ensure they are kept safe.
“Closed buildings in SD 57 cost over $392,000 over the past four years in utilities alone,” said Trotter. “A closed school is not a zero cost facility.”
Lily Bachand, president of CUPE 4951(operational staff, CNC) spoke about the chronic cuts to colleges. As a community college with six satellite campuses (Burns Lake, Fort St. James, Mackenzie, Quesnel and Vanderhoof), CNC plays a vital role in supporting communities and helping to make education more accessible to people in rural areas.
“Program cuts threaten the accessibility of education to the northern population,” said Bachand. “If training is not provided to these local communities, it will remain a challenge to attract skilled professionals to come and work in the north and more importantly, to stay in the north.”
“This government doesn’t seem to understand that it is so much more expensive to educate in the north based on our distance and our smaller population.
“We need to say ‘Stop putting our children in a damn box’. We need to stand up and say enough is enough.”
Caroline Sewell, president of CUPE 3799 (UNBC), described universities as a community.
“This is a community issue. It’s not the community of CNC. It’s not the community of UNBC. It’s not just K-12. It’s a Prince George issue. It’s a northern B.C. issue, and we need to start talking about it.”
Other speakers included Erik Jensen, Vice President of UNBC Faculty Association; Tina Cousins, Prince George District teachers association president; and David Rourke, president of CNC Faculty Association.
Stayed tuned for video clips of the Education North Forum speakers and public comments. See photos in the Gallery.