School board directs finance committee to build ‘restorative budget’

Restoration budget: Trustees vote 5-2 in favour of preparing a deficit financial plan.

Duncan Brown, a local school trustee and representative on the District 79 school board, says that even within the proposed budget, which has been sent to the district’s finance committee to be costed, there are approximately 17 teaching positions that will have to be cut in the Cowichan district next year.

The restorative budget is an effort by board members to reinstate and enhance services that have already been lost over the last 10 years. These include programs such as “Intensive behaviour programs (IBIT), resource teachers, learning assistance teachers as well as teacher librarian time, and all elementary counsellors,” says Brown. All of these effect class size compositions and the learning conditions for students.

But Brown says that there are many more services that have been cut and that need attention. “The substance intervention program that we had for students, was a small ticket item cost wise, but very valuable I think. Custodial time has been cut by eight weeks, so we’re looking at some of that to be restored in the coming budget. Our bussing routes have been cut way back and this is causing access and time problems for our bussing department and school start times.” Brown explains that school start times are dictated by the scheduling and coordinating of bussing routes and the ability for busses to get children to schools.

Making sure that the high school in Lake Cowichan can offer a reasonable course selection is also an issue. “Right now in Lake Cowichan, we are looking for base-line funding for our secondary school.” Both LCSS and the Chemainus high school are having a hard time offering core programs to students. “We want to make sure we can offer a reasonable course selection.” Brown refers to not only courses like physics, calculus and other courses, but electives as well.

Brown says that he doesn’t want to guess at how much restoring these programs will cost as yet, as the budget is presently being looked at by the finance committee, but it is subject to change and negotiation through the budget process. “There may be some savings yet, too, that we can find within our structure. We do expect it will exceed our revenues at this time and our hope is that we can balance this budget with more funding from the ministry.” That being said, even with the proposed budget, there will still be a shortfall of $2.4 million, and if teaching positions are cut the district would still be short $800,000.

Brown feels excited about the approach the school board is taking and hopes that they can come to some agreements with the province. “The projections if we don’t take this approach are scary for me. There are some that are concerned with this approach but not doing something is, to me, what we should fear the most.” Funding projections for 2012, which were drawn up by the board’s secretary treasurer, show that over the next five years there will be a loss of over $4 million. Most of these cuts will be seen in transportation, operations and maintenance costs.

In response to questions about what these cuts would mean to teachers and administration, Brown says “What’s interesting is if you look as we go out, our demands are actually compounding because our demands on the system are increasing, yet our funding levels are dropping. So this is an attempt to work with the government to change that projection.”

Trustee Cathy Schmidt, isn’t on side with the plan to present the ministry with a restorative budget, and says the risk is too high.

“It is really scary to think that our board is moving forward with the thought that the minister is going to actually come up with some extra cash to support this restoration budget. And that is really scary to me because the minister has made it so clear that the dollars are the dollars and that we are not going to get anymore, so in the end our budget is going to reflect a deficit.”

Schmidt believes a balanced budget is doable and that there are surpluses this year to work with.

“I am fully prepared to look at the original draft the secretary treasurer gave us, with the figures that I received as far as what we have as a surplus. I have every intention as an individual trustee to go through those numbers and see if I can put together a balanced budget.”

Moving forward, the proposed restorative budget will go to a budget committee, made up of senior administrators, trustees, and representatives from all partner groups such as the Steel Workers Union, Teachers, CUPE, Parents, First Nations, and Métis. and this committee will look at all revenues and areas for saving. They will then compile a priority list of all programs and services and senior administration will decide what can and cannot be cut from next year’s budget. The budget will then go to the board as a recommendation and there will be a public forum where parents and local PACs can debate and input ideas and concerns.

Brown says the board could be fired by the province, but he is confident this will not happen.