Proposed amendment brings attention to school budget cuts

Trustees discuss merits of deficit budget to respond to continued government cuts

The 2015/2016 operating budget made it through first and second reading at Monday night’s School District 20 board meeting, despite strong opposition from one trustee.

The $41,304,721 budget bylaw was subject to a lengthy discussion where Trustee Mark Wilson voiced his concerns about student welfare and revenue line items excluded from the final budget draft.

During the debate portion of the second reading, Wilson proposed an amendment requesting that the board submit a deficit budget of $75,000 with a mind on health and safety of students.

The budget draft is complete with the proposed cuts presented to the public on April 15. The cuts include reduced custodial hours, fewer staff to match enrolment rates, eliminating the operating budget supplementing for Aboriginal education support services, less bus cleaning and more.

Despite assurances from district staff and other trustees that the student experience is not affected by budget cuts this year, Wilson wasn’t so sure.

“The last six years I have been on the board, we have cut every year and every year, it is cutting into health and safety and the welfare of the students,” he said, adding that now is the time for trustees to take a stand against the province and show how they feel about all the cuts.

“I don’t know how far we can go with (the amendment), but we have to start somewhere. We are eroding the school system and it isn’t working as well as it used to. Some of the things we have done to take action in the past don’t seem to be working.”

While his proposed amendment didn’t pass, it sparked a full discussion about the merits of putting together a deficit budget, a move that is against the law and has resulted in provincial interference and removal of trustees in other districts like SD79 in Cowichan Valley.

First-time trustee Rosann Brunton says she appreciates the board’s frustrations about the budget process and cuts, but can’t support the cause with a deficit budget based around health and safety.

“When I look at this, my concern is if we are to break the law by passing a deficit budget, I want to be 100 per cent confident that I can defend my position,” she said, adding that if health and safety were in jeopardy, she would be behind the amendment.

“With the parameters of health and safety, I don’t feel that 100 per cent confidence. If I was sure there were health and safety issues, I would be very concerned for all the children in our school system.”

Brunton’s thoughts were echoed by other trustees around the table including chair Darrel Ganzert.

“The safety of the children in this district is not at risk nor is the health of the children in our district,” he said. “I am not philosophically opposed to presenting a deficit budget, I just don’t think this is the time, or the issue either.”

The second reason Wilson gave for voting against the proposed budget bylaw is the exclusion of real estate assets the board has, specifically with sale of Blueberry Creek Community School. The negotiations surrounding the building sale have been in camera, meaning certain details can’t be revealed to the public.

“We have been in discussions on this since last October,” he said.

“We have sat here and we have knowledge of what is happening next. It is in camera, so we are going to keep it there, but it was never brought in as a potential revenue within this budget. I think the budget overlooked that. It is not a true budget without having the proper revenue streams brought it. You don’t leave out an asset in a deficit year.”

The school building and land has been assessed at $1.378 million, and Wilson’s comments prompted some discussion about facilities in general.

“I hear Trustee Wilson’s point and I am starting to wonder now if, at some point in time, maybe the discussion needs to be a bit broader about buildings,” said Trustee Kim Mandoli, a nine-year veteran of the board. “If we are talking about looking for money in every nook and cranny, then maybe facilities and school closures aren’t that far off the horizon, but I don’t know.”

The budget bylaw amendment was voted down before council voted to pass the original balanced budget bylaw through second reading.

The third and final reading of the 2015/2016 budget is on May 1 at 5 p.m. at the Kootenay Columbia Learning Centre in Trail.

For a full look at the 2015/2016 budget draft, visit www.sd20.bc.ca.