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COVID-19 challenges see Prince George school district use $4.7M of surplus to balance budget

SD57 passes its $181M amended annual budget for 2020-21
School District 57 (SD57) in Prince George. / Hanna Petersen, PrinceGeorgeMatters

Budgeting and planning in the time of COVID-19 is uncertain, and this remains true for School District 57 (SD57).

At last night’s board meeting (Jan. 26), the district passed the 2020-21 amended annual budget of $181,498,081. 

This amends the annual budget passed on June 16, 2020, to reflect funding based on the actual student enrollment count from Sept. 30.

However, because of the pandemic, student enrollment in the Prince George district has become more difficult to quantify and predict.

"When you look at what we have in our enrollment you can see that enrollment for 2021 is actually down slightly from our projected amounts," explained Secretary-Treasurer Darlene Patterson.

“When we are down it only shows by about 103 students, but in reality that is down by about 300 and some odd students in our physical buildings and is up in our distance learning. So it’s not a total reduction of students but a shift in the way our students are learning in our district during COVID-19.”

The school district budgeted $97 million in regular enrollment funding but actually received $94 million.

Patterson explained students who are in distributed learning are funded at a lower rate.

“The students who are attending distributed learning are funded at a lower rate which is why the district ended up in funding protection for the current year because the student rate went down below a certain amount.”

Trustee Tim Bennett later explained that funding protection guarantees that a district won’t receive less than 98.5 per cent of the previous year’s funding. He said SD57 received about $506,000 in funding related to the district’s enrollment decline.

Whether the district will face declining enrollment next year is also uncertain in the face of the pandemic.

"Our modeling software is having a tough time predicting what next year is going to look like," said Patterson.

"When we run rough software data it looks like our enrollment is going down based on the current year but we don’t know."

In the face of this uncertainly the board also waived the convening of the Catchment and Capacity Advisory Committee for the remainder of the school year as the district currently isn’t facing additional capacity issues and the modeling can’t anticipate future enrollment.

In order to balance the amended annual budget, SD57 has also had to utilize $4.7 million of its surplus despite the annual budget only utilizing $568,000 of surplus.

“We loaded a number of surpluses back into schools so they could make school-based decisions and that is part of the increase we saw in instructional spending,” explained Patterson.

Trustee Sharel Warrington noted that in 2018 the SD57 had a surplus of $17 million dollars which is now sitting at $1.3 million.

“We really have used our surplus as best we can for portables and other very important projects that we haven’t been funded for by the ministry but at the same time we are scrapping the bottom of the barrel so to speak,” said Warrington.

“I appreciate the work that we are doing but I am concerned about where we are going and what we don’t have as a cushion anymore.”

Trustee Bennett said the district needs to be cognizant that the district will continue to see unique challenges and needs to advocate to ensure it's getting the right supports for students throughout the district.

“While I always have been a big proponent of we need to spend the money on the kids who generate the money we need to be cognizant that we still have a 145 million-plus organization to run and 1.3 million of an appropriated surplus is not enough necessarily for a rainy day fund if something comes up,” said Bennett.

However, Bennett, who is also the chair of the management and finance committee, also thanked staff members for keeping any cuts away from students and instead at the district administration level.

“I just wanted to thanks staff for their hard work in coming up with a plan and to the colleagues on the board for stressing that we want to keep cuts as far away from students as possible,” said Bennett.

“For an organization our size, we have a fairly learn administration and more has been added to our staff’s plate and thank you to finding those solutions for a balanced budget.”