‘Blindsided’ school board mulls funding cuts

School District 72 will likely have a balanced budget next year. But it will come at a cost

School District 72 will likely have a balanced budget next year. But it will require a deep bite into reserve funds set aside by previous boards.

Treasurer Kevin Patrick shared the preliminary 2015-16 budget with school board trustees during their regular meeting Tuesday at the board office. The document was dominated by a projected $1.24 million deficit that was made up in part by drawing $852,000 from the district’s strategic reserve account.

“With this budget we tried to maintain existing programs while trying to reduce the structural deficit,” said Patrick. “Going forward, we’re going to be focusing more on efficiencies and improvements.”

The deficit was exacerbated by administrative cost savings of $295,000 mandated by the province in each of the next three years.

The draft budget includes $294,753 in direct administrative cost savings, taken from instructional attendance and administrative attendance support and from savings in shared legal services.

An additional $100,218 was found in a benefit holiday.

Together with the money from the reserve fund, it’s enough to make up the deficit.

Overall, trustees were glad to hear the budget would be balanced, but were unimpressed with the government’s forced budget reduction.

“The district in previous years was wise to put some money away for a rainy day,” Trustee Richard Franklin said. “If the district had not been prudent, we’d be in major trouble. This will soften the blow, but imagine if we could use that surplus to add programs, to enhance education, instead of just keeping the boat afloat?”

Trustee John Kerr was prompted to introduce two motions  — both of which passed — that essentially committed the board to informing the public about the long-term impact on looming funding cuts in the coming years and on the government’s introduction of Bill C-11, which could fundamentally change the relationship between the government and local school boards.

“This is not an attempt to beat up on the government, but an attempt to inform the community,” said Kerr, noting that with 91 per cent of the district’s budget given over to salaries and benefits, jobs may well be at risk in the coming years. “We were blindsided by the idea we had to find administrative savings.”

“I think it’s a funding deficit in our whole system,” trustee Daryl Hagen added. “I think the community needs to be notified of all the cuts and what the impact will be.”

The vote, however, was not unanimous.

“My concern is we’re almost putting ourselves in opposition to government with this,” said board vice-chair Ted Foster. “There are other provinces who have put themselves in massive debt because they’re meeting the public’s needs and putting payment off to future budgets. We need to show fiscal responsibility.”

Foster voted against Kerr’s first motion, but he stood alone.

Kerr’s motion that “the provisions of Bill C-11 should be clearly communicated” also sparked lively debate, with Hagen joining Foster in the vote against.

“Our job is to advise the public on the impact this bill will have,” Hagen admitted. “But we also need to try to stop it through our lobbying efforts as a school board, which I’ve done.”