By Alex Rinfret--The school district will not close any schools this year, but it is facing a long-term financial crunch caused by the continuing loss of students, district officials said at their first public budget session last Thursday night in Port Clements.
"This graph, I think, kind of says it all," said secretary-treasurer Andrea de Bucy, displaying a chart illustrating the constant decline in student numbers in recent years. In 2001, the district had 948 students. This fall, the district expects only 750 students to enroll - a loss of almost 200 students in just four years.
Because education funding is tied to the number of students, the district has had less and less money to work with, Ms de Bucy explained.
"The problem here is less kids," she said. "The solution is more kids."
However, it does not look like more kids are going to appear in local schools any time soon, she said. Long-term forecasts are not predicting a population increase here.
"I looked really hard into a whole lot of statistical projections and it's not looking really good," she said.
In addition, the school district faces competition for students from the band council-run Chief Matthews school in Old Massett, the independent Living and Learning School in Queen Charlotte, and another independent school in Masset.
And although the total number of students is declining, the number of special needs students is remaining the same, Ms de Bucy said. Some of these students require full-time or part-time aides, and the money to pay for these kinds of services is getting harder to find.
The problems caused by the declining enrolment are so dire that the school board has decided to create a task force, made up of community members, to carefully consider options for increasing revenue or saving money, she said.
For example, the school board will soon have to make difficult choices like whether to shut down the district resource centre, sell the administration building in Queen Charlotte, or merge schools.
None of these will happen this year. But the school board wants the task force to thoroughly research the pros and cons of each option, vice-chair Wayne Wilson said, and report back to the board.
On the revenue-generating side, the school board is eyeing the Gwaii Trust. Trustees said that it's time the trust fund changed its long-standing policy of not funding operating costs and started pumping some of its vast resources into the islands education system.
Back to the budget for the coming school year, Ms de Bucy had some good news. Thanks to a pre-election funding injection from the provincial government, per pupil funding has increased across BC, and the Charlottes will benefit from an additional increase in the funding we receive for being isolated, even though there will be fewer students.
This translates into estimated revenue of $9-million for 2005-2006, a two percent increase from the $8.8-million the district is receiving this year.
However, this increase will have to cover a $100,000 deficit which the district will incur this year (due to fewer pupils than expected enrolling in September), as well as wage increases for unionized staff, inflation, an increase in benefit costs, and a complicated revenue transfer regarding First Nations students who drop out, Ms de Bucy said.
The bottom line is that the school board must trim $400,000 from its budget to bring expenditures in line with revenues, she said.
In a completely new move, the board has cut $80,000 from the administration and maintenance budget, and divided the remaining $320,000 worth of cuts between the schools on the island, according to how many students they have. Port Clements elementary, for example, with 6.7-percent of district students, will have to chop $21,440 from its budget, Ms de Bucy explained. This amount, or a portion of it, could also be raised by the community.
The plan gives principals more flexibility, she said, rather than the board dictating to each school how many teachers it will have based on the number of students.
"This is a reasonably workable solution," Ms de Bucy said. "I think we can limp through this year without too much pain and suffering."
The 40 members of the public who attended the budget session had several suggestions.
Gerry Johnson, a member of the Port village council, said there may be an opportunity to make money by using empty classrooms as day care centres, if the federal government sets up a national day care program. He also suggested the district could save money by refusing to compile the data which the Ministry of Education is demanding.
Ms de Bucy agreed that data reporting has become extremely onerous for the small district, which is required to file three times as much information under the Liberal government as it did previously.
Mr. Johnson said the district should just stop sending the numbers to Victoria. If the ministry complains, ask them why islanders should be closing schools and cutting jobs to feed the bureaucrats, he suggested.
Brigid Cumming, president of the Port parent advisory council, said parents feel strongly that cuts should be made to administration. Administration costs have increased from 5.7-percent of the budget in 1993-94 to 7.2-percent of this year's budget, she said.
She also volunteered to be part of the task force which will work on the longer-term financial plan.