North Okanagan-Shsuwap School District secretary-treasurer Nicole Bittante threw the board a life preserver during Tuesday’s budget meeting and trustees breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Two budget options were reviewed at the meeting, both of which included reducing planned transfer of money to the local capital fund, in order to help balance the budget with few reductions to student programs or services.
The school district needed to reduce its budget by a projected $1.3 million this year in order to balance the books.
Many parents were angry about the discovery of budget transfers used to fund the construction of the administration building, and at a recent public budget meeting demanded trustees find a way to balance the budget without any more cuts to student programs.
In the first option, a proposed transfer of $1 million to the capital fund would not take place, which, when combined with a $300,000 savings realized through a one-year break on paying employer benefit premiums, would leave the district with a potential operating surplus of $686,200.
In the second option, only $500,000 would be transferred to capital, instead of the full $1 million, so with the benefit premium savings, a much narrower surplus of $186,200 is projected.
This does not affect the planned renovations to Carlin Elementary-Middle School as that $1.1 million project will be paid out of money already in the school district’s capital fund.
The second option is favoured by Bittante, and also appeared to have won favour among board trustees at the table, with a number of them speaking in favour of putting some money towards capital items, while keeping any projected surplus as small as possible.
“I think the preliminary options of cuts scared the crap out of all of us,” said trustee Chris Coers. “Now these options have put us in a position where we are making no drastic changes, which will be helpful particularly this year. I was looking to buy some time for this year, based on a variety of circumstances. This budget does that, it buys us some time.”
Bittante warned trustees that this budget is based on one-time or short-term savings, which can’t be replicated year after year.
“It is good news, but it is also putting off the inevitable. Next year, we will not have these things to save us,” she said.
Three of the trustees, Barry Chafe, Jenn Wilchuk and Kelly Rowe, resigned in the wake of the controversy regarding budget transfers and dysfunction among the board. They noted the board gets a reprieve from making difficult cuts, but they are concerned about the future of education for the students of this district.
“These issues are not going to go away,” said Wilchuk. “We still have buildings with more than 25 per cent of the student seats empty… A task force is not going to solve these problems. They can only be resolved by making big changes and hard decisions.”
Without the transfer to capital, the school district’s ability to buy equipment such as cars, furniture and desks would be limited for this year. The main casualty to cutting the transfer is the school district’s technology plan, which will be put on hold. The school district was supposed to be entering year two of a plan to upgrade the technological capabilities of the school district for both students and staff.
A planned change to the school district’s alternate programs, which is budgeted to save $150,000 will still be proceeding. There will also be some cuts to the deaf and hard-of- hearing program, but those cuts are based on a reduction of affected students in the school district.