VICTORIA - Energy Minister Bill Bennett has turned down a request from the British Columbia School Trustees Association for a special deal or exemption for looming BC Hydro rate increases, which are forecast to rise by 40 per cent over the next decade.
Bennett said Thursday that if he grants a special deal to school boards, taxpayers, businesses and industrial power users must make up the difference through even higher rates.
A nine-per-cent increase is set to take effect next April — the first of five years of hikes that total more than 25 per cent.
The trustees association said the higher rate in April will increase total hydro rates at 1,600 public schools to $39.6 million from $35.5 million, likely sparking program cuts for students.
"No, we won't be granting school boards an exemption from the payment of their electricity bills," Bennett said. "The nine per cent increase in the first year amounts to less than one-tenth of one per cent of the total budgets of school boards. Everybody else is going to have to manage it, including the government, and everyone else is doing their best to manage budgets from all different types of perspectives."
"We believe they can manage the impact of this rate increase," he said.
Opposition New Democrat education critic Rob Fleming said education program cuts, including teacher and support staff layoffs, and possible school closures, could result from the rate increases as school boards grapple with rising costs with limited amounts of money.
Fleming said school boards have recently had to fund a 3.5 per cent salary increase for members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees out of fixed budgets, and the hydro increases have to come from the same budget.
"They have a case for fairness here and they should be getting the minister's ear on this issue," he said. "Otherwise, the B.C. Liberals are going to be hearing from their constituents who are going to be irate that schools potentially will be closed down."
Trustees association president Teresa Rezansoff said the nine per cent increase means school boards will have to find an extra $4.1 million, and an estimated $29 million for increased hydro costs over the next five years.
School boards get limited funding, and the rising utility costs will lead to additional staff losses and fewer student services, Rezansoff said.
She said trustees are seeking an exemption from the rate increases or a special reduced education utility rate, adding school boards will otherwise have to find ways to ensure their bills are paid.
"Bills will be paid," she said. "We are a responsible group of people and we will continue to make sure our obligations are met. We only have so much money. We get a pot of money from government to provide for public education and everything that we do comes out of those dollars."
Also on HuffPost