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The challenges and solutions facing public education were the focus of a town hall forum in Burnaby on February 2. Burnaby MLAs Kathy Corrigan and Raj Chouhan were among the crowd of close to 75 people in attendance.

Co-hosted by CUPE 379 and the Burnaby Teachers’ Association, the forum included a panel of presenters who offered solid information and analysis about trends in education funding and services. Burnaby Board of Education Chair Larry Hayes talked about the situation facing Burnaby and other large urban districts. He said that 100 languages are spoken in the community – many of which are spoken in the schools. English as a Second Language, immigrant and refugee populations have particular needs within the district.

Hayes told the meeting about the budget cutting and allocation exercises that the Board has gone through to provide adequate programs and services to students. “The funding that we have now from government does not in any way meet the basic needs of students in the district.”

The presentation by Iglika Ivanova, an economist at the Public Interest Research Desk of the Canadian Centre for Policy AlternativesB.C. office, placed the issue of education underfunding in the context of broader inequality in B.C. She noted that one in seven (253,000) British Columbians earn less than ten dollars an hour and that wages have stagnated. At the same time, tax cuts have undercut government revenues and have increasingly limited government’s ability to fund necessary programs. Ivanova said that the CCPA is calling for a “Fair Tax Commission”, saying that it is time to have an adult conversation about taxes.

We need health care, education, roads and public transit. Either we make the choice to pay collectively or we all try to buy our own through fees, tolls and other means,” said Ivanova.

CUPE National research representative John Malcolmson presented on the structural funding shortfall in B.C.’s public education system. He identified key elements of the shortfall which was estimated by the BC Association of School Business Officers to be approximately $300 million in 2010. Malcolmson and Hayes responded to questions from the audience about lack of adequate hours for Education Assistants, cuts to custodial positions and problems with funding for infrastructure maintenance.

Glen Hansman, BC Teachers’ Federation activist, talked about issues facing teachers including class size, outdated technology, workload and adequate resources for special education. Hansman noted that the underfunding is even more concerning given that the student enrolment decline is coming to an end.

CUPE 379 president Terry Allen was very pleased with the forum, saying that it is critical to place the issues CUPE members, parents and teachers experience on the ground in a broader context. “Forums like this let us take a larger look at what is happening to students, parents, staff and teachers. Our Board of Education has been creative and committed to providing the best possible services but we are all hamstrung by underfunding,” said Allen.