School trustees split on the numbers as budget process begins

Cowichan school trustees have just  kicked off what’s expected to be a divisive budget process,

Cowichan school trustees have just  kicked off what’s expected to be a divisive budget process, and they’re already $1.6 million apart.

The disagreement stems from the projected shortfall — one camp pegs the figure at $2.4 million, the other, $800,000.

“The $800,000 number that’s been put around is after senior staff made some suggestions on how to reduce the deficit, but that certainly hasn’t been anything that’s been approved by the finance committee or the board, so we’re looking at the straight-up numbers right now,” said Trustee Ellen Oxman, who heads up School District 79’s finance committee.

Trustee Cathy Schmidt — who chaired the finance committee for the three previous budgets — used the same paint for a different picture.

“The amount of funding is determined by enrolment and, with declining enrolment, the district will receive less money,” Schmidt explained. “Staff adjusted the amount for declining enrolment and the staffing level without the second semester addition, and determined that the shortfall amount for next year is $800,000.”

SD79 secretary-treasurer Bob Harper confirmed the numbers are simply being interpreted in two different ways, but stressed that the figures being used right now are only estimates.

Meanwhile, the board of education is actively soliciting community input as it builds its financial plan for 2012/2013.

A survey is circulating the community, and the district has created a Facebook page and email address (budget@sd79.bc.ca) to collect feedback.

There’s also the public budget meeting scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on March 28 at Quamichan Middle School.

“Things are a little bit different than how it’s been done in the past — we’re trying to get input up front before the budget is built,” Oxman said.

“When you look at a budget, it’s all numbers. We want to attach people to those numbers, attach issues to those numbers, when we make really big decisions that affect people every day.”

Oxman’s also thrilled to have students more involved in the process.

“I think that’s fantastic because they live the school life every day, so to have them involved in the process is, I think, a great thing, and I hope they stay involved,” she said.

“We’re trying to make this as open as possible. Good schools means good communities, and we need to know what they think. We want to hear everything, not just what they think we might want to hear. We want all sides.”

One of those “sides” is the four-trustee faction on the board that vehemently opposes a deficit budget.

With the majority of the nine-member board favouring a no-cuts budget this year, trustees such as Schmidt are advocating for support for a balanced budget.

“When I took my oath of office, I said I’d uphold the School Act, and that means putting in a balanced budget,” said Schmidt.

She pointed out the alternative will likely mean the board’s firing, last seen in Cowichan in 1985.

She also pointed out this year’s shortfall going into the budget is the lowest she’s seen in years.

“This will probably be the easiest budget I’ve ever worked on in this district,” she said.

Or perhaps not.

“There are two budget processes going on at the same time — the deficit and the balanced,” she admitted. “It’s something I’ve never seen happen before, and it’s going to get a little confusing.”

Inside the numbers:

Projected operating revenues: $71,540,863

Projected operating expenditures: $74,006,316

Projected shortfall:     $2,465,453

Proposed savings adjustments:

teacher reduction of 8.38 due to declining enrolment $762,580

student-to-educator ratio shift to the standard 17.2 (from16.8) $802,620

2011/12 operating budget surplus $200,000

Aboriginal education estimated rollover: $325,000

Proposed expense adjustments:

add four contingency teachers                 $364,000

add fuel adjustment                      $33,000

add utility cost adjustments                  $44,000

Adjusted projected shortfall:                  $817,253