COQUITLAM — Usually, School District 43 superintendent Tom Grant relishes the opportunity at board meetings to share positive updates of all that’s going on in the district.
But on Tuesday, Grant delivered the grim news to the politicians and public that the board is facing a $7.5-million operating budget shortfall for the current school year.
The superintendent explained the board is in the hole for a few reasons, which include overly optimistic numbers when the budget was being crafted last spring and a decline in student enrolment.
In fact, the district fell 223 students short of its projected enrolment numbers for the 2012/2013 school year, which — based on the per-student provincial funding formula — works out to roughly $1.4 million.
Grant was at a loss to explain how the prediction came up short, but suggested the decline is coming from the secondary end of the district.
“For the last four years, we nailed it,” he said. “This year it seems everyone, including other [districts] like New Westminster, are hit with the same thing.”
Other costs driving the shortfall include $3 million for salaries, another $1.5 million for benefits, services and supplies, which includes an eight-per-cent utility-rate increase.
The district also over-projected international education revenues to the tune of $1.3 million.
So with the district facing an impending shortfall, officials have devised a plan to save money without cutting staff.
In an effort to recover about $5 million of the total deficit, the district has proposed a host of cost-saving measures, including reducing its IT budget, overtime, caretaking supplies inventory, discretionary spending for board office employees and even catering costs.
“Without going severely into staffing, this was the best we could do right now,” Grant said.
The district could also apply to the province to carry forward a deficit to be paid off over several years.
The superintendent is expected to meet with Ministry of Education officials in Victoria next week to discuss the situation.
The district has to offer an amended budget to the province by the end of February, but won’t know the final numbers until the end of the school year.
In the meantime, there appears to be plenty of blame to go around for the district’s current financial difficulties.
Trustee Brian Robinson blamed the provincial government, taking issue with the millions being spent on ads promoting the Liberals’ jobs plan.
He argued that while the government is spending money on self-promotion, it asked districts to help fund the last teachers’ contract.
“These millions being spent on TV ads and the like are tax funds that come from our children’s classroom, plain and simple,” Robinson said.
However, Coquitlam Teachers’ Association president Teresa Grandinetti put most of the blame on the district itself.
She suggested district staff didn’t look at the budget as critically as they should have last spring.
“I just think there was a lot of hoping of things,” Grandinetti said, noting there has been a historical projected decline in enrolment.
She added she would have preferred the district start the tough task of saving in September, rather than at this point in the year.
Grandinetti is also concerned what the shortfall will mean for next year’s budget when it comes to the extra $2 million the district annually contributes to keep class sizes below 30 students.
Board chair Melissa Hyndes offered to take some of the responsibility for the situation, maintaining the board is expected to make fiscally sound decisions with taxpayers’ money.
However, she also noted School District 43 gets the lowest per-student funding in the province and was critical of the government’s treatment of the district.
Specifically, she took issue with the way the ministry has distributed a grant called the Learning Improvement Fund.
The money is expected to go toward improving class size and composition in each district.
School District 43’s share is $3.1 million.
But since the district already puts $2 million toward that initiative, Hyndes said the district asked to put the extra money back into the operating budget.
The province turned down the request, to the disappointment of the board.
Hyndes also hinted that if the district finds itself in a similar situation for next year, everything is on the table for discussion, including staffing and extra money for class size and composition.