Don’t cut services to students.
That was the essence of the School District 83 public budget meeting Thursday night at the Jackson campus gymnasium.
Roughly 100 people attended the meeting, which was designed to collect input and ideas on how the school district should cut $1.6 million from the 2016/2017 budget year.
The budget situation is currently fraught with controversy after it was revealed that for the past five years, the school board approved the transfer of $10.5 million from the operating budget into a capital fund. This means money used to fund programs and services to students was used, in part, to pay for the construction of a new $9.3 million building for school administration.
Many people who spoke at the meeting wanted to see this year’s operational budget bolstered by the projected surplus.
As of Feb. 29, the school district is projecting a surplus of $1.6 million, although the final amount will not be known until July.
“If that’s what you are projecting, could you park that $1.6 million surplus into operating and end up with a net zero budget? asked parent Cam Brown.
School District 83 Secretary Treasurer Nicole Bittante said the budget needs to be balanced before the surplus amount is confirmed.
“Anything can happen,” she said. “As a professional, I would never recommend to use a surplus to balance a budget.”
But Brown pointed out the school district has been generating large surpluses for many years.
“You have been budgeting conservatively, but I think you need to be budgeting a bit more aggressively right now. It’s time to slide that rule over.”
Another suggestion was to transfer the $1.4 million currently sitting in the capital fund, back into the operating budget – despite a caution from Bittante that the Ministry of Education is not supportive of the practice.
“Yes, it can be done,” noted DPAC president Kari Wilkinson. “You would not want to see it done all the time, but we have heard from parents, and they want to see some capital funding returned to the operating side to support programs.”
Part of the issue with the school district transferring capital funds is that there is $1.4 million in that fund and trustees recently committed $1.1 million to renovate Carlin Elementary-Middle School. That project is in the initial phases, but work is supposed to proceed this summer.
It was an emotional meeting for parents, many of whom have children who have had programs cut or services reduced.
“The budget is just numbers on paper, but this is kids we are talking about,” said parent Marty Gibbons. “These are programs that will determine whether they make it for the rest of their lives. This can be the difference between them working at 7-11 or finding a job that will allow them to pay their bills and raise a family of their own.”
The thought of administrators working in an an expensive building while children’s programs have been stripped upset many participants.
Linda Slippers-Venter asked about the cost of the ergonomic desks in the school building, which shift from seated to standing positions, but, Bittante did not have a price for those items.
“It costs $1,500 to send a child to IHCAN for testing (to determine an autism diagnosis). How many kids could have been sent for testing and now be getting help for the cost of one of those desks?”
There was loud clapping at public calls for the resignation of the entire board, with parents suggesting trustees could put their names forward for re-election if they felt they deserved the public trust.
“We feel the system is tarnished. The trustees have a track record for not listening and right now it is too had to work within a tarnished system,” said Gibbons.
Another common theme was the need for a review of cuts to central staff. It was noted that while enrolment has dropped and other departments have had cutbacks, central staff and administration has increased or remained constant.
Wilkinson issued a challenge to the board to reduce administration from 3.9 per cent of the total budget to 3.5 per cent.
“We are too top heavy,” she said.
Noah Ralston, who was the driving force behind the discovery of the school district transfers, continued to ask for a detailed report on the school district management to allow the public to consider options for administrative cuts. The DPAC is also asking for the same information, which the school district indicated would be provided.
Underfunding of the education system in general was another theme, with a number of suggestions for trustees to submit a “needs” budget to the ministry, either alone or along with the balanced budget to make a statement about the desire for increased funding from the B.C. Liberal government. According to the School Act, trustees must submit a balanced budget to the ministry by June 30. In other cases, when a board submitted a needs budget, which is designed to point out areas where cuts should not be taking place, the school board was fired. Instead, an administrator was appointed to balance the budget.
A number of people also suggested increasing revenue to the school district through charging bus fees to parents and increasing rentals of school district facilities.
Five of the nine trustees attended the meeting, with trustees Jenn Wilchuk absent due to a medical procedure and Debbie Evans away due to a family commitment in Alberta. It was not mentioned why trustees Michel Saab and Kelly Rowe were absent.