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West Kootenay's School District 20 budget quietly passes

With little fanfare the new school district budget officially passed late last week into legislation.

With little fanfare the new school district budget officially passed late last week into legislation.

The $41.9-million budget bylaw was adopted with no discussion — nor with anyone in attendance from the public — by the School District No. 20 (Kootenay Columbia) board of trustees at Trail Middle School in a brief meeting Friday evening.

It was a balanced budget, as mandated by the province, but it came at the expense of district staff, with expectation nearly 14 people from the district’s teaching and support staff will be cut.

However, that terminal prophecy could alter when the school year begins this September, said board chair Darrel Ganzert on Sunday. What passed into law Friday night might not necessarily transpire when the chalk hits the board in the fall.

Instead, what was delivered in the budget was acknowledgement the school district will work within the reduced means the Ministry of Education has allotted it, but it is not what will automatically happen, said Ganzert.

“The actual amount of money that you gain or lose by the decisions you’ve made is quite variable in a budget,” he said. “Only the future will tell how this works. All this budget does is signal to the public our intentions, if truth be told.”

Meaning there will be some adjustment, some finetuning. A budget is the direction the district’s secretary treasurer will pursue until the board decrees the course must be changed. That adjustment takes place on a monthly basis during the school year as issues — such as the teachers’ sick day cost overrun — arise.

Ganzert also dismissed the idea of putting the onus back on the provincial government to find answers to the $1.55-million budget shortfall, similar to what Cowichan’s School District No. 79 did in passing an unbalanced budget, $3.8 million more than its revenues, recently.

An unbalanced budget was not considered in SD20 since many trustees felt the facilities question — closing schools in Castlegar and Rossland — could provide a budgetary answer in the next two years, Ganzert said.

“Until that is done, it would be irresponsible to approach the government for more money because the first thing they would say is, ‘Cut a school,’” he said. “Now, do you want them to do that or for us to do it with public input? For us, we aren’t there yet.”

The new budget means there could be 14 full time job losses throughout the region — including two teacher-librarians, almost eight teachers, three non-enrolling teacher staff, and one custodian.

The job cuts were deemed necessary for the coming year to deal with a $1.55 million operating shortfall in the district — and rising internal costs for sick leave that are now $400,000 over budget — covering a three per cent drop in funding from the Ministry of Education.

Cutting the teacher positions meant the district would save $1.17 million in 2012/13, the largest chunk out of the $1.58 million in total cuts made. With custodial staff possibly being cut from 12-month to 11-month employees, the district expecting to save $113,841.

There will also be a district-wide rise in student-to-teacher ratio — from 24-1 to 25-1 — that could impact the electives offered at the high school level.

A motion was also passed at the meeting to consider possible reconfiguration or closure of Castlegar area schools, as well as Rossland schools, with a decision to be made by Dec. 31, 2012 and implementation in September 2013.

This was the first year there has not been a budget review committee and its effects were felt Friday night, said Kootenay Columbia Teachers Union (KCTU) president Andy Davidoff.

There have been 10 committee meetings on the budget to create the budget that was passed Friday night, but those meetings, unlike previous years, did not include regular representation from the KCTU, CUPE and the district parents advisory council (DPAC).

“So all the board is hearing is in camera. They are all closed meetings, so all they are hearing is senior management and the administrator’s perspective,” said Davidoff.

The KCTU, CUPE and DPAC were invited to comment “a couple of times.”

Prior to this year there were several meetings that both unions and the parent’s council were involved in, with all the proposed cuts and line items being discussed.

“Then the board members hear all of these perspectives. The process is flawed, communication-wise,” he said.

Davidoff raised the question of the structure change in the board first meeting of the term prior to Christmas.

Although the board has acknowledged they will examine the situation for next year, Davidoff said he will be meeting with the CUPE president and DPAC to come up with a model of their own and present it to the board in June.

Loss or no loss?

The jobs the school district is predicting will be cut might not be, after the full extent of the new Learning Improvement Fund is realized.

The fund is a bright light is shining at the end of the tunnel when the new school year kicks in this fall, said Ganzert.

Six months ago the fund did not exist, but what it now brings to the table for the school district is it puts around $400,000 into the hands of the teachers and administrators to decide what it best for their schools.

Never before has this happened, said Ganzert, a teacher-librarian himself for 35 years.

“There is significant hope on the future for teachers in the most critical areas they are worried about and that is class composition,” he said.

Composition — or placing kids in classes depending on their abilities — would be supported by early intervention, shoring up schools in the areas they need buttressing in, developing a new strategy for dealing with social disorders (like attention deficit disorder), and new strategies for moving away from labeling kids and more towards treatment.

These situations would be dealt with at the lower grades, said Ganzert.

“So when they get to the high school your composition problems … are largely diminished,” he said.

Once the school year was underway, teachers and principals would sit down and determine where their “hot spots” were, where the dollars would be needed. They would apply to the district for the money after a decision was made.

The recommendations would then go to the superintendent of schools, as well as the union president, and ultimately the final decision would come from the board of trustees.

The fund would then be used for hiring teachers, professional development, extra support in the classroom and some teaching assistant support.