B.C. Education Minister Mike Bernier and Vancouver School Board Chair Mike Lombardi held duelling press conferences Thursday, as the deadline for the VSB to submit a balanced budget came and went. 

Bernier stopped short of firing VSB members but he did order a forensic audit of the VSB books. 

"We need an unflinching look at the books and the board of governance," said Bernier at his Vancouver news conference. "Fifty-nine of 60 school districts have balanced their budgets and again it's Vancouver on this roller coaster."

Lombardi responded by saying the VSB welcomes the audit and will work with the auditors.

Mike Lombardi

VSB chair Mike Lombardi says he welcomes another audit. (Simon Charland-Faucher)

"I would prefer that the thousands of dollars being spent on this audit would be spent on teaching and learning and kids in Vancouver," said Lombardi.

The VSB budget for the 2016-17 school year contains a $21.8 million shortfall. Under the provincial school act boards that fail to submit balanced budgets can be fired and replaced. 

Yesterday the VSB rejected a proposal from the B.C. government to use money from the sale of the Kingsgate Mall lands in East Vancouver, which the VSB owns, to help decrease the deficit.

Kingsgate Mall

Bernier says the VSB could realise $100 million by selling the Kingsgate Mall property (Catherine Rolfsen)

"The proposal was to take up to $6 million out of capital asset proceeds and put them into the operating budget. That's the equivalent of taking out a second mortgage to buy your groceries," said Lombardi. 

The VSB currently receive $750,000 annually in lease revenue from the Kingsgate Mall lands.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson urged the two sides to "find a way forward," pointing out Vancouver is the most complex of all the school districts in the province. 

"In 2015, for the first time, Vancouver provided more in school taxes ($463 million) than it received in provincial funding ($448 million) — a loss of $15 million," said Roberston in a statement.

Last year, the provincial government commissioned a 225-page Ernst & Young audit of the Vancouver School Board that suggested the district could save $37 million per year by closing 19 schools. 

Bernier said that the new audit ordered today would "ensure the close to half a billion dollars taxpayers invest in the district is going to support students."