Tears were literally shed as school trustees passed a preliminary budget Wednesday that included $5.6 million in cuts.
Trustee Sarah Nelson’s personal grief and frustration with the budget came out during the discussion, and she struggled to compose herself as she talked about how the local school board lacked autonomy in setting the $130 million budget for 2013/2014.
Still, she said, members will face public criticism.
“It’s difficult to own this.”
Other trustees were also emotional, and at one point the meeting’s stenographer got up left the board room, returning with a box of tissue she handed to misty-eyed board chairman Mike Murray.
Murray explained that there will be 35 positions lost across the district next year, and lamented that it is the new staff coming into the system that will be lost.
“This impacts the young teachers coming into the system who have just spent three, four or five years TOC-ing [teacher on call], and now they’re not going to have jobs.”
After the meeting, Murray said he was taken aback by colleagues crying at the board table, and of his own tears.
“That shocked me.”
But he was not surprised by a strong emotional reaction from board members.
“We really do care a lot about our students, and we see how passionate our staff are,” he said. “We’re just really afraid that what we stand for might be lost.
“You’re affecting people’s lives.”
The board faced a budget shortfall of $5.66 million. This was brought about by several factors, including a projected decline in student enrollment of 197.5 full-time equivalents. That will cause a drop of $1.17 million in government per-pupil funding.
Salary and benefit increases will rise $1.89 million.
Increased costs in services and supplies, including inflation and the switch from the HST to the GST/PST tax system, will cost $610,000.
Other factors, including the fact that last year’s budget was only balanced by using $1.5 million from reserves, caused a $2 million shortfall.
About 94 per cent of the budget comes from the provincial government, while another five per cent comes from tuition paid by international students. The board has written the province to oppose the present funding levels.
Meanwhile, the board decided to:
• Raise class sizes averages. But they are still below the legislative limits at every grade level. At the elementary level, this results in a reduction of 11 FTE teachers, and at the secondary level 8.4 FTE teachers, for a complete saving of $1.49 million.
• Use $1.51 million from reserves.
• Reduce custodial and grounds staffing by five positions, and maintenance staff by one.
• Cut clerical staff will by 0.86 FTE.
• Reduce student support services by two FTE, and helping teachers by 2.25 FTE.
• Look at energy conservation, reduced printing and photocopying, centralized purchasing and “rationalizing bus routes,” as measures identified for potential savings.
• The board is also looking to increase opportunities to rent its buildings to community groups, and noted the rental rates will be increasing.
The document also notes that the board has to start planning for anticipated budget shortfalls in future years: $1.93 million in 2014/2015 and $2.16 million in 2015/2016.
The trustees would like to see this made an election issue.
“What happens next year?” asked Trustee Susan Carr. “We cannot keep doing this. I haven’t heard a word about education in any election talk from anyone.”
Murray noted that the board’s contingency fund was close to $6 million only five years ago, and will be diminished to under $2 million after the new budget. That leaves no room for error in the $130 million operating budget.
“That’s of concern in the long run.”
And there was talk of the quality of education being diminished.
“There is a point beyond which the level of excellence we have achieved to date will not be able to be maintained,” said trustee Ken Clarkson.
“There was a real good effort made to distribute the pain as equitably as possible,” added trustee Dave Rempel, and he gave kudos to secretary treasurer Flavia Coughlan, calling it the clearest school board budget of the 16 he has been involved with.
There will be a budget committee-of-the-whole meeting on April 17, and registration is required. The final budget is scheduled to be adopted at the May 8 meeting.
The board conducted an online survey, to get feedback from education stakeholders and the general public about where to cut.
There were 1,084 respondents. Half were elementary school parents, 22 per cent were employees, 21 per cent were secondary school parents, four per cent were community members and one per cent were students.