After coming up $76,000 short in finding ways to cut $2.2 million from this year's budget, the New Westminster school board has put staff adjustments of $500,000 on the negotiating table.
Following a Dec. 11 consultation meeting where trustees tried every which way to find manageable cuts to the budget, school board chair Michael Ewen told The Record on Tuesday night that putting staffing as item 28 on a list that used to have 27 items on it was done for flexibility.
"Trustees wanted some options," said Ewen. "The list (of 27) didn't offer much in the way of flexibility. ... Now, we have some leeway."
Superintendent John Woudzia said possible staff adjustment won't necessarily mean layoffs, as re-deployment of existing resources and non-replacement of positions could be a part of the solution.
Woudzia said, on average, there are 200 vacancies in the district during the school year, with approximately 120 of those occurring in the six-month period from January to July.
In addition, on a daily basis, there are approximately 30 to 35 special education assistant absences - out of approximately 170 assistants - and the district has, in the past, saved money by offering no replacement of daily staff absences.
With the district looking at being $2.2 million in the hole, there are now $2.6 million of proposed cuts on the list of 28 items presented at Tuesday's regular school board meeting.
School trustee Lisa Graham was disappointed that one line item, a reduction of $64,000 that would fund four special needs students for another year at the district, was
Graham said the district has an obligation to help those students instead of trying to shift the responsibility to an external agency such as Community Living B.C.
"This is only one per cent of the special needs allocation," said Graham. "I believe this really places the board in a position of jeopardy."
While Graham was unsuccessful in having that line item removed from the list of 28 items where cuts can be made, district staff will look into the particulars and logistics of those four students if the district wants to shift responsibility to another agency.
The district is also seeking the public's input on the proposed cuts and has set a time frame of Dec. 20 to Jan 17 for receiving that input.
Ewen said the public will have opportunities at a Jan. 8 committee meeting and a regular board meeting on Jan. 15 to offer input, but acting on the recommendation of Joan Axford, hired to help the board through its financial quandary, the board will also receive recommendations online.
"The consultative process will involve an online response format called ThoughtStream," explained Woudzia. "Specific portals will be developed for different stakeholder groups."
No matter what feed-back comes back, trustees know their work isn't easy.
"We're going to have to make some very challenging decisions," said trustee David Phelan. "I think we should wait until the community process is over before we make any changes or omissions to the 28 (proposed) items."
Woudzia also expressed concern that even after trustees make their tough decision, there will only be approximately 22 weeks until June 30 for all the recommendations to be implemented.
Some of the more notable items on the now-28-item list include the district selling a small Queensborough property they believe could net $450,000; receiving an addition-al $200,000 from the district's SD40 Business Company;
deferring the board's $250,000 contribution to the skate park until a future year even though that must still be funded from the district's operating budget; deferring $75,000 of replacement of aging equipment; and applying all $700,000 of the provincial holdback funds towards offsetting the deficit.
Some of the smaller line items that would net smaller savings include: taking another $10,000 from Woudzia's $25,000 budget, which would give him less capacity to respond to emergencies; moving all meetings to either before or after the school day, which could result in a $5,000 savings but could also adversely affect attendance at those meetings; and reducing field trip costs by $5,000, which will impact some activities in the district.
CUPE local 409 president Marcel Marsolais, the only visitor to make a presentation to the board Tuesday night, said the district should look at standing up to the provincial government.
"Boards all across the province haven't put enough pressure on governments," he said. "When the suggestion to save money is to not replace staff, that isn't a solution."
Trustees expect to make a final decision on how to deal with their $2.2 million deficit by the end of January, 2013.