SD57 File Photo

By Abigail Popple, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, RMG

School District 57, which encompasses Valemount and McBride, is anticipating a $2M deficit in its 2024/2025 budget. The District has released a survey for parents to provide input on which spending items should be reduced.

The five-question survey, launched on April 18th and active until May 3rd, will be used to determine which costs will be cut. It asks respondents which priorities they would like to see reflected in the budget, and which reductions the Board should consider making.

The deficit is largely attributable to inflated operational costs, says superintendent Jameel Aziz.

“Our current operational costs exceed our current supplies of income and grants from government,” Aziz said in a presentation about the draft budget last Tuesday. “If we continue to just operate the district the way we have traditionally operated it, we would have to accrue $2M annually and probably even more so as inflationary costs continue.”

The District will have to find ways to reduce operating costs and resolve this structural deficit, according to Aziz. 

At the special advisory meeting where Aziz discussed the deficit, he presented a list of 12 costs the District is considering cutting. Among the suggested cuts was a $155K reduction in supplemental allocation to small rural schools.

Aziz elaborated on these costs in an email to the Goat.

“Small, rural schools receive various supplemental budget allocations, over and above the standard enrollment-driven budget allocations for staffing, services and supplies that all SD57 schools receive,” he said. “Typically, a portion of these supplemental allocations are not spent by the school, sometimes due to the inability to recruit staff for positions, and sometimes because the allocation exceeded the needs of the school.”

Other high-cost items on the potential chopping block are reductions to the number of administrators employed by the district, and a district-wide reduction of $30 per student.

In a phone call with Aziz, the Goat asked whether the District had tried to access other revenue streams or grants.

“We do that already, and there’s no grant or other revenue stream that would remedy that $2M,” he said. “We actually don’t have any revenue generating processes […] and nobody wants to help you look after your operational deficit with a grant.”

Even if the District found an extra $2M to balance this year’s budget, it would not resolve the root of the issue: inflated costs for utilities, infrastructure, and equipment, among others.

“Some [budget] items have gone up 50 per cent in the last year or two,” Aziz told the Goat. “And yet our allocations for budgeted dollars that we receive from the government, there’s no inflationary measure in those.”

Expenses such as computer equipment, food, and vehicle maintenance are among the rising costs facing the District, said Aziz. 

The District must present a balanced budget to the Ministry of Education and Child Care in June, said Aziz – meaning the board will finalize this year’s budget by the end of the month. 

He said the BC School Trustees Association is advocating for the Province to consider inflation in its education budgets.

The Association’s President, Carolyn Broady, said inflation is an issue facing districts across B.C.

“Much as we’ve come across in our everyday lives, inflation has had a huge impact in the last two years,” Broady told the Goat in a phone call. “We’re feeling the same pinch at school districts: hydro costs, increasing gas costs, all those things. And they have not been fully funded by the government.”

The Association has made the Province aware of school administrators’ concerns about inflation, said Broady. She and the Association’s CEO will visit Victoria at the end of May to discuss these and other issues with the Ministry of Education and Child Care.

In the meantime, Broady encourages parents to email the Ministry of Education and Child Care as well as the Ministry of Finance.

“I think there is power in writing to the [Ministries],” Broady said. “They will listen to parents and families.” 

In a statement emailed to the Goat, Minister of Education and Child Care Rachna Singh said the Province is continuing to work school districts and local governments to address financial concerns.

“We recognize the challenges some districts are facing due to record population growth and increased costs from global inflation,” Singh said. “We’ll continue working with SD57 to find innovative solutions to the unique challenges they face while working to make sure that quality, inclusive education is available for every student in the province.”

The Ministry of Education and Child Care added that the Province has been increasing operating funding since 2017.

“The average is now over $13,000 per student for a total of almost $8 billion including special grants in 2024/25 – over 50% more than in 2016/17,” the Ministry wrote. “This includes an estimated $189.4 million in operating and special grants for the Prince George School District. That’s almost $56.6 million higher than the district received in 2016/2017.”

The Ministry added that this year’s Provincial budget includes $500K to recruit teachers in rural and remote districts throughout B.C.

“Operating funding goes directly to boards of education, and school districts and their elected boards decide how best to allocate this funding to meet the needs of students across the school district,” the Ministry said. “All school districts in B.C. are in their planning stage for the 2024/25 school year and have started their budget engagement process. It’s up to the boards to make a final decision on their budgets.”

School District 57’s survey can be accessed at until May 3rd.