07/11/2013 01:18 EDT | Updated 09/10/2013 05:12 EDT

B.C. First Nation School Funding Must Increase, Budget Watchdog Says

Decaying First Nations schools in British Columbia need nearly double the amount of money the federal government is currently providing, said Canada's federal budget watchdog.

The study by the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, released on Thursday, said on-reserve schools in B.C. are older than B.C. public schools, and they need $39 million this fiscal year just for upkeep.

It also said required funding could reach $47 million by 2028-29, based on anticipated growth in student populations. Ottawa typically provides $26 million annually.

The report was requested by NDP aboriginal affairs critic and Nanaimo-Cowichan MP Jean Crowder as a follow-up to a 2009 study by the budget officer that showed more than 500 reserve schools in the country are under-funded by nearly $200 million annually.

"I think it's frustrating," Crowder said in a phone interview. "The government continues to deny that there are gaps in funding, and now we've got this evidence that once again reaffirms there is a difference to what kids can have access to on reserve versus off reserve."

Crowder said on-reserve schools not only need more funding for things like libraries, gymnasiums and computer labs, they also desperately need more money for operations and maintenance.

Provincial school systems have a methodology to determine when and where schools are built or renovated, but no such formula exists for First Nations schools, said Deborah Jeffrey, executive director of the First Nations Education Steering Committee, a B.C.-based non-profit organization.

"The disappointment is how long it's taking us to address equity," said Jeffrey. "We have evidence in a number of areas in First Nations education of inequity, and yet how much movement have we had since the initial report in 2009?"

Even though an agreement was struck between the federal government, B.C., and the First Nations Education Steering Committee last year to address funding for education programs and services, capital investment was excluded from the agreement, said Jeffrey.

But reserve schools in B.C. are underutilized and the report said if the schools were operated in the same way as public schools in the province — where sparsely attended schools are closed and the students moved — then the needed funding would fall from $47 million to $30 million.

Plus, it said on-reserve schools in B.C. are generally in better shape than their counterparts in other areas of the country — something that Crowder said she has witnessed herself.

A school she visited in Ontario had to convert broom closets into teachers' offices because space was so limited, she said. Another one had a gymnasium where the floor was "so warped that if you put a pencil on it, the pencil rolled downhill across the gymnasium."

"In other schools in the northern part of this country, the kids have to wear mitts and hats and coats in the classroom during the winter time because none of the doors and windows close properly," she said.

The study said the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada program that allocates money for the upkeep of First Nations schools is under "considerable pressure," so many projects are often delayed, in favour of more immediate repairs or upgrades.

"Consequently, funding pressures result in rust-out of assets, often due to a lack of regular maintenance and limited local capacity to operate," the report said.

Crowder said she understands federal funding is limited in "tight economic times," but she said that should be no excuse.

"If they don't invest in education now, they will spend money in the future on health, on criminal justice, on the welfare system because they failed to give kids the education they need."

The federal government is working on developing a First Nations Education Act. While Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt was not available for an interview, ministry spokesperson Andrea Richer said in a written statement that the act "would put in place standards and structures to improve education for First Nations students, and would put in place the mechanisms required to provide stable and predictable funding for First Nations schools."

The Aboriginal Affairs Department said the federal government designated $275 million last year to build and renovate schools on reserve and to support early literacy programming, services and partnerships with the provincial school systems.

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