The B.C. government is bringing in a third-party independent adviser to help the Vancouver School Board deal with the challenge of cutting about $15-million in spending to balance its budget – to the surprise of the board chair.
Education Minister Peter Fassbender on Thursday announced the plan for the province's second-largest school district, which has disclosed that it is struggling with the budget shortfall.
Under the provincial school act, boards of education have until June 30 to submit a balanced budget to the education ministry.
Mr. Fassbender told reporters in Victoria he would recruit an adviser to look at the Vancouver situation as part of a "supportive" effort to help the board, which has an enrolment of about 50,000 students at more than 100 schools and adult education centres.
He noted new board members were elected last November.
"It is a new board, there is a new board chair, and I want to do everything I can, and the government does, to be supportive in helping them move forward," Mr. Fassbender said.
"There may be very well some recommendations that come that will help government to understand what we might be able to do to be more supportive," he said.
He said the adviser will be recruited through a standard procurement process, and noted that a previous report cost about $180,000. "The government will underwrite the cost through the administration budget of the ministry, so we will not be taking anything from any school activities or classroom activities," he said.
Christopher Richardson, elected to the board last November and now the chair, said news of the provincial action was a surprise.
He said the board had been candid with the ministry about its challenges, but also made it clear the members expected to figure out how to balance the books.
Mr. Richardson said the board is facing a "substantial shortfall," but is confident staff will meet a March 31 deadline to come up with options for dealing with it. Those options are to be presented to the public in meetings to seek feedback.
The board chair said he was resigned to the ministerial intervention, which comes after a 2010 review of spending by the provincial comptroller general. "We wanted to look at how far we've progressed and seek their comment on our proposed balanced budget and seek any additional new savings."
Asked why other boards facing similar challenges are not receiving similar attention, Mr. Fassbender said Vancouver stands out because it has been forthright with the ministry about its issues.
"They are the first board that formally put a letter in front of me that indicated a significant anticipated deficit and that's what prompted me to have discussions with the new chair. No other boards have contacted us," he said.
Mr. Fassbender noted that he has heard anecdotal comments, and such issues have been discussed on social media, but nothing concrete.
Rob Fleming, education critic for the opposition New Democrats, said Mr. Fassbender was trying to draw attention away from issues around the full funding of a settlement in last year's teachers' strike and concerns about proper funding for seismic upgrades of schools.
"He's trying to change the channel," Mr. Fleming said.
Mr. Richardson said the board will co-operate with the ministry-appointed operative.
"It's going to happen and I am looking to the positive suggestions that may come out of it," he said.
Mr. Richardson noted that the board last week signed a contract for Price Waterhouse Coopers to look at revenue and expense opportunities for the board.