The Vancouver School Board is facing a 24 million dollar shortfall this year and it says the province's promises of funding increases won't be enough to cover rising fees and salaries. 

The B.C. government is increasing education funding province-wide by 179 million dollars over the next three years according to last week's budget announcement, but VSB chair Mike Lombardi says that won't make up for the rising costs of MSP fees, hydro fees and salary increases.

"The bottom line is, the government is not keeping up with the downloaded costs it's putting onto the board and that's resulting in fewer services for kids," he said. 

"That's unacceptable." 

This year's education funding woes are characteristic of what Lombardi calls "chronic underfunding" by the provincial government.

"The Vancouver School Board, along with other school districts, has been grappling with this funding shortfall in British Columbia for over a decade," he said.

In 2015, the province appointed an auditor to help the VSB make budget cuts to deal with that year's $15 million projected shortfall.

B.C. has the second lowest per-person funding in Canada when it comes to education funding, according to Lombardi.

Declining enrolment but not for long

Enrolment in B.C. schools is down by 70,000 students since 2001 — in Vancouver over the same period, it's down by just over 6,000 students or more than 10 percent , although Lombardi says he expects to see more families moving to Vancouver in the coming years.

"Next year, we're projecting a decline of 248 students and after that we're pretty well leveling out."

An increase in enrolment would put additional strain on school programs, some of which have been downsized or cut altogether over the years.

It's not something the school board wants to do, said Lombardi, but making cuts is one of the only ways to balance the budget.

"The government continually downloads costs to the school board and then we have to go and find cuts to accommodate."

Minister responds

In response to Lombardi's accusations, Education Minister Mike Bernier said funding levels are not as important as the outcomes for students.

Mike Bernier

Education Minister Mike Bernier says the VSB's problems are "not new," and they should have planned for declining enrollment better. (Mike Bernier MLA website)

"We have the best outcomes in the world, we have record funding in British Columbia. I think that's something the taxpayers of British Columbia and the parents here in British Columbia can be very proud of," he said. "We constantly hear from a few groups that it's underfunded, and unfortunately, when you hear that noise coming from a few groups all the time, that's what you start to believe."

Bernier said the VSB's budget has increased while enrolment has declined and said the board should have planned for underused facilities and empty seats better. He said the $24 million shortfall is the result of "inaction" from the board, noting their problems are "not new."

"[The VSB] has had lots of time, and it's unfortunate they didn't take action to this point," he said.

Bernier also denied that rising costs were outstripping funding increases, citing contributions from the Learning Improvement Fund and funding for special needs students that go to districts province-wide.

To listen to the interview with VSB chair Mike Lombardi, click the link labelled: Vancouver School Board blames province for budget shortfall.

To listen to the interview with Education Minister Mike Bernier, click the link labelled: B.C. education minister defends funding levels

With files from Stephanie Mercier