By Richard McGuire
Funding of rural schools will be addressed as part of a major funding formula review expected to get underway in the fall, said Rob Fleming, the new NDP minister of education.
In the meantime, the government plans to keep schools like Osoyoos Secondary School (OSS) open using the Rural Education Enhancement Fund (REEF) brought in last year by the former B.C. Liberal government.
“How that announcement (REEF) will be transformed into something more enduring and comprehensive is something we’re working on right now,” Fleming said in an exclusive interview with the Osoyoos Times.
If Fleming’s name is familiar, it’s because he made repeated visits to Osoyoos last year as the NDP’s education critic to support keeping OSS open. Fleming also engaged in a war of words last year with MLA Linda Larson, chastising her for not doing enough to keep the school open.
“My experience working with the community of Osoyoos made it real for me about how important a school is to a community like that,” said Fleming. “I have to say I was very inspired by a community that was willing to stand up to the previous government that simply didn’t get how important it was to the fabric and well-being of the community, but also to the economic and social aspirations and opportunities for the town.”
Fleming said the government plans to table a new budget in the fall and he expects the REER to be maintained until the funding formula review is complete, likely in time for the following year’s budget.
“I think the program that allowed OSS to stay open for this year will be the funding vehicle in the immediate future,” said Fleming. “But we’re not going to run a government on a sort of back-of-the-envelope, ad hoc and very politicized way of developing programs. We want things to be fair and available and predictable for school districts, parents and communities.”
The funding formula review, he said, will be well thought out and will consider issues such as the different interests and needs of urban and rural education. It will provide a better system for communities across B.C., “but very importantly rural communities,” he added.
“You only get a chance to do a funding formula review about every 25 years or so,” he said, pointing to the 1988 Sullivan Commission held during the Bill Vander Zalm Social Credit government.
In 2002, he said, the B.C. Liberals abruptly shifted to a per-pupil funding model that led to numerous school closures across rural B.C.
“That’s one of the root causes of some of the underfunding that we’ve seen with school closures, certainly in rural B.C.,” said Fleming. “It was a vehicle to force that on the school districts, as a blunt instrument.”
Fleming said the government hopes to launch the funding formula review this fall. “We would like to keep it to a fairly ambitious timeline, 12 months or less, so there might be changes that will be available to inform Budget 2019,” he said.
Asked about a report on rural education written after MLA Larson led hearings across the province, Fleming said he’d seen a summary.
“I think the report is a survey of concerns out there,” he said. “The recommendations, I wouldn’t call them prescriptive on the policy side, but we’ll certainly take what is useful and put it into the overall comprehensive funding formula review that will be province wide.”
Fleming said the government plans to make a significant funding infusion into the school system, including settling a court case with B.C. teachers and hiring new teachers and learning supports.
“We also have committed to a number of other resources that will alleviate parents’ funding burden for many classroom materials, equipment that schools would ordinarily have,” he said.
The new government has also told school board trustees that it is ending the practice of the last 15 years of downloading costs onto school boards, he said.
“We’re looking forward to a relationship where school districts can rely on working collaboratively with the province on meeting the expectations of parents, kids and the resource needs of their district,” he said.
Fleming said he’s spoken with School District 53 board chair Marieze Tarr and he believes the future of OSS looks good. He pointed to the new larger cohort of Grade 8 students coming into the school.