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School board draws on surplus to balance budget

School District 57's surplus has been whittled down to $1.2 million after the board for the second year in a row pulled funds to create a balanced budget.

School District 57's surplus has been whittled down to $1.2 million after the board for the second year in a row pulled funds to create a balanced budget.

That means the district has about one per cent of its annual operating budget as a safety net, trustee Brenda Hooker told the board at the draft reading at Tuesday's special public meeting.

To put it in context, Hooker compared the district to a person who makes $50,000.

That one per cent, would translate to $500 in a normal household, said Hooker, "which is not a very big reserve if your roof goes or your furnace blows."

At the start of this year's budgeting process, the district faced a $3.3 million deficit.

Trish Bella was the only trustee to vote against the budget's second reading.

The final reading and adoption of this budget is scheduled for May 26.

"We've been very polite sitting here tonight... but I can't support it because I've been here long enough to say I can't do it to the kids any longer," Bella said.

"This is not anything to do with the work our employees are doing. This is totally the lack of support from the government," Bella said. "I do not believe for a minute that a cut can be kept away from the classroom."

The district started this year with a $3.3 million deficit, which was whittled down to $700,000 and presented to board at its meeting two weeks ago.

Those savings were found through different departments as well as the $698,775 pulled from surplus to keep cuts away from the classroom, Hooker said.

Last year the district pulled $3.2 million from its surplus after facing a $5 million deficit.

Declining enrolment is a problem, Hooker said, compounded by "no additional funding to address the six per cent increase in BC Hydro rates, continued increases in the costs of employee benefits and other cost pressures due to general inflation."

Chairperson Tony Cable pointed out that of this year's $125 million operating budget expenses, more than $106 million is spent on staff.

"Before we even start the budget process, 84 per cent is already allocated to salaries and benefits," said Cable.

"There's not too much more to play with that's for sure."

Just last June, Hooker said the surplus sat at $4.2 million, but now there is only $1.2 million.

This year, school boards across the province were asked to make administrative savings over the course of two years. For District 57, that means $1.3 million dollars, roughly divided over two years.

Hooker called it a frustrating requirement and said staff keep saying "the system truly is at a breaking point."

"There was not very many places to look for their suggest administrative savings," said Hooker, who is the chair of the finance committee.

Next year the surplus won't be an option to satisfy the requested administrative cuts, she said, stressing the need for future strategic planning sessions to address the structural deficit.

District administration makes up just under five per cent of the district's total budget, the board heard.

"That is a very lean district office considering the amount of legislation, and student safety, and buildings and staff that require administering," Hooker said.

Trustee after trustee spoke against the public education funding.

"I think the first step is for the B.C. government to start having sustainable budgets for school districts," said Cable.

"We need to tell the story that these budget cuts can't continue."

"We are trying," said Cable, referencing several meetings with ministers and the letters that are sent to government in opposition to cuts after almost every board meeting.

Four-time trustee Sharel Warrington said the district has faced significant challenges over the last 10 years.

"It's not necessarily our fault," she said.

"We are charged by the minister to make do with dollars and pay for expenses that we are not being funded for and that's a reality and I believe we have made it very clear to our ministry and to our government that this is not okay."

"We are impacting the classroom," Warrington said.

Cable said the one "bright note" for this year's budget is the $75,000 in one-time funding allocated to each Mackenzie, McBride and Valemount secondary schools.

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