Massive staff and program cutbacks proposed by the Vancouver School Board this week could soon become a province-wide reality as school districts stare down multi-million dollar shortfalls.

At a meeting Wednesday night, the Vancouver board proposed slashing 190 full-time staff positions -- including 113 teachers -- to address a budget shortfall of more than $18 million.

The proposals also called for cutting 10 teaching days from the school year and wiping out music and fine arts classes at 51 elementary schools

If music and fine arts have any hope of survival, it may be through a user pay system, according to Mark Reid, head of fine arts and bands at Vancouver Technical Secondary.

"We are now saying there is a clear price on music education for students of that age. It separates an opportunity for everybody and turns it into an elitist opportunity," he told CTV News.

The proposed cuts could also affect some of the province's most vulnerable students -- 43 positions including teachers of special education and English as a second language, counsellors and education assistants, could be on the chopping block.

Dawn Steele told CTV News that there's no way her son, who has autism, would have reached grade 10 without the extra help of those staff members.

"We've protected the class sizes, we've protected the unions, we've protected the tax payers by making sure that the budgets are balanced. The only thing we haven't protected are these vulnerable kids," she said.

Vancouver School Board chairwoman Patti Bacchus told CTV News that officials aren't happy about making cuts to special education.

"The cupboard is bare. We are scratching in the empty corners trying to find a place to make savings," she said.

The school district could save some money by closing schools, she added, but only about $400,000 per year for each elementary school closed.

A province-wide problem

School districts across B.C. are facing similar shortfalls this year, and could be forced to take similarly drastic measures.

In North Vancouver, where four elementary schools are facing possible closure, the 2009-2010 budget shortfall is $6.7 million

The province's second largest city, Surrey, is sitting at a $12 million shortfall, while Victoria's is $1.4 million.

Further East, Langley school district's shortfall is $5.3 million and Coquitlam's is $2 million.

Even in West Vancouver, where the school board has a history of healthy budget windfalls, spokeswoman Andrea Wilson told, "I don't imagine we'll have a surplus this year."

West Vancouver has not yet released its budget update for 2009-2010.


B.C.'s Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid described dire predictions of program cuts by school boards as "fear-mongering" Thursday.

"We do have a good system here, and I really don't like the idea of parents and students having their confidence in the system undermined," she told reporters.

However, MacDiarmid acknowledged that schools have had to pinch pennies in recent years.

"It's been difficult for school districts, and it is largely, I would submit, because of declining enrolment," she said -- the province links school funding to enrolment.

With a report from CTV British Columbia's Leah Hendry