About 50 concerned parents, union members and educators attended the board of education's budget meeting Tuesday to hear how the district's chronic deficit situation will impact jobs and classrooms.
The final numbers for this year's budget won't be confirmed until the end of June, but for now the situation looks grim with about 20 teaching positions, 15 support staff positions and 35 special education assistant positions facing potential layoffs.
"At this point, I am projecting we will end this school year approximately $1 million in the red," acting secretary-treasurer Al Balanuik said. "That is the worst case at this point that we are looking at."
The deficit figures are a work in progress, Balanuik said.
"I keep saying 'if' because it's important to understand this is not a done deal," he said.
One of the main concerns for attendees was how the budget cuts will impact the most-vulnerable students - those with special needs.
"It strikes us to the core the impact it's going to have on children," superintendent John Woudzia said, summing up the situation.
In addition to this year's shortfall, the district has a hefty $2.8 million dollar surprise shortfall from last year, which it has five years to repay.
Last year's deficit was caused by increases in business costs and miscalculations on staff and service costs, according to a report from consultant Joan Axford.
By law, school districts are required to present balanced budgets. The school district has faced three budget shortfalls in the past 11 years - a fact union members in the crowd and some labour-endorsed trustees blamed on provincial funding.
Board of education chair Michael Ewen said the district has to advocate for more funding for public education.
"We know what the Ministry of Education is providing us is not adequate to meet the educational needs (of students)," Ewen said. "We need to look to both parties to see if they are interested in increasing education spending.
"Currently, we have a government that has a priority about balancing the budget," he said. "For me it's going to come down to advocating for more money through the election. At this point, no trustee, that I'm aware of, is prepared to go the route of the Cowichan school district and defy the government.
"We need to be really clear, people are going to get less services, our adult students will get less services, our students will get less services," Ewen said to the crowd, which included New Westminster's provincial NDP candidate Judy Darcy.
CUPE Local 409 president Marcel Marsolais, whose union represents support staff in the district, also commented on education funding under the current government.
"Education is not going to be the same unless there is a change on May 14 ... we are at a point now where this can't be what school boards do. They can't go down this road and expect quality education," Marsolais said.
But the NDP hasn't laid out its spending platform. Darcy told The Record it would do so in the first week of the campaign.
"The NDP has certainly said that we will be investing in class size and class composition and investing in public education. I don't know the magnitude of that yet, and I think what's fair to say is that each school district, (including) school district 40, needs a long-term strategic plan, as they talked about, that really tackles some of these structural issues as well the support that's given from the province," Darcy said.
New Westminster Teachers' Union president Grant Osborne echoed Marsolais' comments.
"We are now seeing the effect of a decade (of cuts), and we have to get a message, a clear message," Osborne said.
But trustee Lisa Graham, whose son has autism, said it doesn't matter which government is in power, special needs have always been underfunded
"Regardless of what government is in government, it's just a fact," she said.
The meeting was held on the same day as World Autism Awareness Day, Graham noted.
"When I look at 35 SEAs (special education assistants), it's impossible. We have children who are entitled to have those SEAs in place. I panicked years ago, which is why I ran (for school board), because I thought my son can't function in school. I'm going to run and I'm going to fix this," she said, then looked down and added, "Dj vu."
According to the most recent Ministry of Education count in February, New Westminster has 561 students enrolled as special needs. This is out of a total enrolment (from kindergarten to Grade 12) of 5,911 students.
The New Westminster school district has an operating budget of about $59 million; 93 per cent of the budget goes toward salaries and benefits.
"We are among the districts that are higher in terms of the amount of the operating budget we provide on staff and benefits," Balanuik said.
The district has put its focus on "staff over stuff" - meaning it's spent less on supplies and more on teachers and special education assistants.
"But, at some point, you need to have stuff," Balanuik said.
The district doesn't put aside money for a contingency fund.
"Any contingency is going to come at the cost of jobs," Ewen said.
Axford, the consultant hired by the district to review the books last fall, recommended the district have $900,000 to deal with unforeseen cost pressures.
Local political watcher James Crosty spoke at the meeting, saying he came at the suggestion of Ewen.
"I decide to attend tonight because you are looking for ways to save money - to me the focus needs to be on the students and the teachers," he said. "Other school boards save money for a rainy day, now I can see it would nice if we had been doing that for the last 14 years."
He suggested the district look at ways to save money by renegotiating costs with suppliers.
"The issue here of the amount of money that's spent on supplies - $2.1 million - how about renegotiating some of those things. There are people hungry for business. You can get efficiencies here that can be plowed right back into keeping teachers employed, and I don't hear that tonight," Crosty said. "I hear a lot of whining, complaining and bitching about the province and not having enough money, but I'm not hearing practical, down-to-earth solutions."
Trustee MaryAnn Mortensen reminded Crosty that when she spoke earlier in the evening she took responsibility - as a member of the board - for the district's dire finances.
Trustee David Phelan said the district needs to develop a long-term plan.
"We have to make sure that when we look at this that it's not simply a reactionary," he said. "In our district and throughout the province we face enormous cost pressures every year."
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