Resist the Beginning…Consider the End
I guess it is a brilliant if well worn tactic – distract people from their misery by piling yet another misery on their shoulders they must address. This is the genius of the ministry withdrawal of the Annual Facilities Grant from all the school districts in BC to the tune of $110 million.
This was the first meeting of our school year and it carried on in the dark shadow of this recent announcement by our government. This funding (AFG) normally expected to arrive in April, is designed to allow districts to care for the ongoing upgrades and improvements to their buildings and grounds beyond regular maintenance programs (assuming any district can afford ongoing regular maintenance programs). Anything that will add to the long term betterment of the school can generally be funded by this grant (Cowichan receives about $1.8 million – an amount determined by enrolment as well as the average age of facilities with an adjustment for geographic factors.)
There are 12 categories of eligible annual facility grant expenditures:
- Roof Replacements (including scheduled roof replacements and major roof repairs)
- Mechanical System Upgrades (improvements, replacements or provision of heating, ventilation, air conditioning or plumbing systems)
- Electrical System Upgrades (improvements or replacements of power supply and distribution systems)
- Facility Upgrades (improvements to protect the fabric of the plant, including exterior painting, window and door replacement, building envelope repair and replacement, structural and non-structural seismic mitigation)
- Loss Prevention Projects (improvements, replacements or provision of fire protection system)
- Functional Improvements (improvements of school facilities related to the provision of educational programming)
- Technology Infrastructure Upgrades (“behind the wall” improvements to accommodate computer and telecommunications wiring and cabling)
- Site Upgrades (site improvements including positive site drainage; repairs to sidewalks, parking lots, site access/egress, paved work areas, paved play areas, and play fields; perimeter safety fencing; contaminated soil remediation; underground storage tanks removal)
- Disabled Access (improvements related to access for persons with physical disabilities)
- Asbestos Abatement
- Health and Safety Upgrades (improvements related to indoor air quality, seismic vulnerability, traffic safety, and structural upgrades)
- Site Servicing (improvements, replacements or provision of sewer, drainage or water services; underground irrigation systems).
In other words – beyond caring for the more mundane repair elements of our schools, this grant recognises the need to continually fund and carry out projects in order to keep our buildings healthy and safe for our kids and staff; districts are also entrusted with sustaining schools for the future and prolonging their useful life.
This is sound enough -as far as it goes- and certainly it is a hat tip to one of our gravest obligations – the stewardship of our buildings and grounds.
However, our ministry has told us two interesting things –
First -this grant has been revoked for this year (actually for 5 quarters) because it is claimed boards have been piling up reserves as surplus and rolling around naked in the money instead of spending it.(don’t imagine that at home)
Second –we have been told that this is the government’s cute way of ensuring funding will be priorised for the classroom rather than wasting public money nurturing the physical environment our kids learn in.
These two bizarrely contrary justifications collide rather forcefully when you consider the following:
Most districts do not have reserves – they plan their capital improvements believing that as of April the AFG will materialise again. Any ‘surplus’ is simply on hand to fund improvements already planned and contracted for if not completed. In our district we had for some time due to the rigours of underfunding used our AFG for areas of our operations that would not normally fall within the prevue of capital improvements – we simply did not have enough in the operating budget to care successfully for our schools and it showed. As I always say-these days when it comes to public education there is no such thing as a surplus – only a service deficit and it is also true in this case. If boards have been able to squirrel away a few kopeks for a rainy day it ain’t surplus – it means something that needed doing did not get done just to cover off a probable crisis.
The cynical platitude that this is somehow about funnelling great wogers of cash in the direction of the classroom will not bear up to much investigation – clearly boards that have already completed work but now do not have the funds to pay for it will simply have to pay the bills out of the remaining operating budget which by the way is largely meant to-you guessed it- fund the classroom. And it must be observed that there seems little evidence the money yanked from our districts for facilities improvements is now flowing into the same districts for classroom needs.
Anyone who proposes the theory that you can neglect our buildings forever and not incur significant costs down the line has been living in a volcano. Our own AB Greenwell is a prime example of this cycle of doom – you ignore a problem that could be sorted with judicious maintenance and you persist in doing so despite howls of concern from staff and parents. Had the district simply addressed the issues at ABG (like any other school with maintenance needs) we would not now be faced with a decommissioned school and a fight to build a replacement. If the replacement were ever to be approved it would cost somewhere in the region of $10,000,000.
Of course – in our district we had about 2 million in our AFG, one million of which had originally been earmarked for the upgrades to AB Greenwell that should have proceeded in March 2008 and would have corrected the problems there if the school population had not been stampeded out in fear of contagion just one month before.
Once it was determined the district had no interest in renovating the school thus correcting the problems, that million dollars was then declared part of the package which would encourage the government to build a new school at the lake. We really should have spent that money on the reno because now it is part of the inadequate pot left over after we have lost our AFG for the foreseeable future.
If anyone out there can conjure up a more petty efficiency then saving money by neglecting our schools I really don’t want to know what it is. Trustees- and I hope my colleagues are among them- should view this development as a declaration of war, sabotaging our capacity to nurture public property as we are obligated to do.
At this meeting the indignation was palpable – what must happen now is an axis shift that recognises the urgent need for more audible outrage; a considerable commotion is in order.
The main duty trustees perform for our government is the approval and uncomplaining management of deliberately inadequate budgets.
I wonder what the world would look like if we just refused to do this dirty work any longer.
Your Trustee Pal