By Alex Rinfret–To sum up the coming year’s school district budget at a public session Feb. 28 in Masset, secretary-treasurer Andrea deBucy simply pointed to her shoes.
Unlike the snazzy $600 pumps worn by provincial Finance Minister Carole Taylor last month as she unveiled an expansive budget, Ms deBucy’s shoes were flat, black and practical. And while they were not especially lavish, neither were they held together with duct tape.
Ms deBucy said islanders can expect much the same in the coming school year. While the district continues to grapple with declining student numbers, it probably won’t have to make any severe or surprising cutbacks.
“We’re not looking at radical cuts or slashes,” she said to the 11 members of the public – mostly district employees – who attended the public consultation. “This year, it’s a low-key budget year.”
Ms deBucy explained that the first step in preparing the budget is to predict how many students will enroll in the district’s six public schools this September. This number is directly related to how much money the district will receive from the Ministry of Education, and decisions like how many staff need to be posted at each school flow from it.
The problem is, there’s no way of knowing this number when the budget is prepared in the spring. In larger districts, this might not matter as much, but with the low students numbers here, it’s vital to make an accurate guess.
If she overestimates, Ms deBucy said, teachers could have to be laid off and classes could have to be reconfigured – not great for students or staff.
Last September, 749 students showed up, one shy of the 750 Ms deBucy had predicted. For this September, she’s guessing 720 students, a 4-percent drop over this year’s number. (For the next year, she’s predicting a further drop to 700, after which point the enrollment should stop declining and level off.)
The bulk of the loss comes from the three north-end schools, with Ms deBucy predicting that G.M. Dawson will lose 12 students, Tahayghen eight and Port Clements nine. At the south-end, she’s predicting that Queen Charlotte will lose only two students and Sk’aadgaa Naay four, with enrollment at both schools starting to grow by the next year. And at A.L. Mathers school in Sandspit, she’s predicting an increase of six students, thanks mostly to that school’s e-school distance learning program, which enrolls students from all over the islands.
Ms deBucy said her enrollment estimates are deliberately on the low side, because it’s easier to deal with higher than expected numbers than the opposite. The principals of the schools, she said, have estimated that 760 students will enroll this fall.
Her estimated enrollment of 720 translates into revenue of $9.3-million, lower than the $9.7-million received last year but still a healthy amount, she said, and more than the district received in 2004 when there were even more students.
“At the end of the day, we still have a lot of money coming in,” Ms deBucy said.
In the long term, she said, the district may look at money-saving ideas like amalgamating Masset’s Tahayghen elementary and G.M. Dawson secondary into one building, and moving Port Clements elementary into the village’s new multi-purpose building (this initiative is well on its way to becoming a reality). She also suggested talking to Old Massett Village Council about a possible partnership with the band-run Chief Matthews school, and selling off or leasing district houses and land.
Teacher Chris Bellamy asked trustees to increase the budget for high school sports in the district, saying it had remained the same for the last 10 years, despite rising travel costs.
He said the average high school team gets about $700 a year from the district, while the cost of taking a team off-island runs between $2,500 and $3,500, and many teams compete off-island more than once. Teams raise the rest of the money through fees (which are kept low so no one has to stay home because of financial hardship), the Gwaii Trust and fundraising.
Mr. Bellamy has already asked the Gwaii Trust to revamp its travel fund policies, suggesting that funding should be a set amount per participant, and that the ratio of matching funds be reduced from the current dollar for dollar. For example, he said, the trust could contribute $2 for every $1 raised by the community.
Community fundraising has drawbacks: there are many demands on the same donors and merchants. “Residents of Masset and Old Massett are the most generous people in the world, but they shouldn’t be responsible for high school travel,” Mr. Bellamy said.
Given the importance of high school sports in keeping students in school and raising school spirit, he asked the board to double the level of funding, or work with the Gwaii Trust to develop a plan for funding school sports.
Ms deBucy said the board welcomes written submissions from the public about the budget, as long as it receives them before March 21. You can e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
The board expects to pass its budget bylaw at its April 25 meeting at Queen Charlotte Secondary, after holding four public consultations and two working sessions with senior management.
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