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Trustees consider $1.93M budget cuts to school programs, staffing

School District 57 required to submit balanced budget by June 30

If anybody has $1.93 million they would like to donate towards the education of students in School District 57, Jameel Aziz would be happy to take your call.

Just six weeks into his new job as superintendent of SD 57, Aziz and his staff and the board of education face the onerous task of having to present a balanced budget to the Ministry of Education by the end of June.

To get to that point, they will have to make budget cuts that amount to $1.93 million. Tuesday afternoon is a special public meeting at the board office, trustees had a chance to sit down with district staff to discuss a draft of 22 recommended budget reductions that collectively add up to $2.39 million.

Aziz, the former Yellowknife school superintendent, started his new job March 25 as the eighth SD 57 superintendent in eight years. In introducing the proposed cuts, Aziz said staff tried to make recommendations that had the least impact on classrooms. After five years of drawing on a surplus fund to make up for budget shortfalls, that surplus has been drained and the district has no choice but to make cuts.

“Five years ago you had approximately $17 million in your surplus between your restricted and unrestricted budgets and you have essentially spent that down for the last five years and you can’t continue to do that,” Aziz said to the board.

“I want to be clear, my intention is to continue to look at decentralized services and determine what makes more sense to have as centralized, in terms of efficiencies, equity and in terms of finding balance across the system. There will be structural changes that come to the way we operate our budgets moving forward, but for this year I’m still in the analysis phase.”

Among the proposed cuts the school is considering are: a $30-per-student reduction in the allocations to each school ($390,000);  a reduction in school administration positions at College Heights, Van Bien, Southridge, Morfee elementary schools and Mackenzie and McBride secondary schools ($500,000); increased vice-principal teaching time/reduced teacher allocation of 0.2 full-time equivalent per school at Quinson, Spruceland, Ron Brent, Harwin and Nusdeh Yoh elementaries; reducing staffing, supplies and services at the district learning commons ($270,000); eliminating the currently-vacant Indigenous education director position ($220,000); reductions in clerical staffing ($127,000); decreasing staff in the facility services department ($167,000); lowering the supplemental allocation to small rural schools to reflect declining enrolment ($155,000); eliminate a half-time professional development coordinator position ($67,000); eliminate the travel budget for the cultural performances program ($20,000); implementation of a $50 student bussing registration fee to a maximum of $75 per family ($100,000); and reduced staffing for discontinued and potentially discontinued programs such as Distance Education, Provincial Resource Programs and Intersect ($97,000).

Trustee Bob Thompson, said he would support the reallocation of vice-principals at the five schools to save on teaching costs. Thompson, who represents Valemount on the board, said while there’s no way to avoid the budget reductions, he remains hopeful that what does get cut can later be reinstated in future budgets.

“As our superintendent said, all of these things suck big-time, they’re terrible,” said Thompson. “I would support this; it’s a slight shift in workload and I understand they’re already going 120 miles an hour with their hair straight back and we’re asking more of them but by June 30th we have to come up with the money and submit a balanced budget to not be in violation of the law.

“Nothing we decide is permanent. I’m choosing to think of this as way to survive this particular budget and hopefully in the coming years we won’t be making these kinds of cuts.”

Prince George District Teachers Association president Daryl Beauregard told the board that carrying through with a proposed 40 per cent budget cut to the district learning commons to save $270,000 would be a mistake.

“The proposed cuts to DLC would really cripple the service it provides to teachers,” said Beauregard. “They curate, source, operationalize, distribute the highest-quality resources for teachers across our district. This is work our teachers don’t have time for. This is work teacher-librarians don’t have time to do.

“Think of a library, there’s books, there’s learning resources, there’s equipment and all kinds of things you can sign out as an educator. If I want to teach a unit on truth and reconciliation there are resources all ready to go with lesson plans and guides and things to take that I can just sign out. I don’t have to find it on the internet and have something that might be of lower quality. They are provided so that you know you’re getting the best-quality resource.”

Trustees Thompson, Sarah Holland and Shar McCrory all spoke out against that particular cut. McCrory said not having centralized library services would especially affect rural schools that operate in more of a vacuum and rely more on the common services.

CUPE Local 3742 president Paula Bass, who represents SD 57 custodians and clerical staff, expressed concerns about the proposal to reduce clerical hours and close the SD 57 office for two months in the summer reducing positions to just 10 months per year. Bass said those are lower-paid jobs and the staff turnover rate is high.

“CUPE staff are the lowest-paid in the district so when you’re reducing staff you’re reducing hours you’re reducing our most marginalized staff,” said Bass.

“A lot of the reductions are changing 12-month positions to 10-month positions. It’s a massive reduction for a staff we’re already struggling to retain. People are leaving not because they don’t love what they do, they’re leaving because they can’t afford to work for the district.”

The board received 800 responses to a public online survey, which will be used to help determine budget priorities.

The draft budget will be discussed further by trustees and staff at a closed meeting and will then be reviewed at an advisory committee meeting on May 21. All three readings of the budget could be passed as early as the May 28 monthly trustee public meeting. If not, a special meeting will follow on June 4.

“It’s a daunting task for sure,” said school board chair Craig Brennan. “There’s not agreement on any of the items, these are all very difficult decisions.

“My basic philosophy is keep the cuts away from the schools and in this case, almost all of the cuts impact the schools in one way or another. Now, the job of the trustees it to try to weigh those different difficult decisions and say this is the balanced budget we’re going to put forward for three readings.”