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Editorial: Clawback leaves district in limbo

If the province thinks the Saanich school district can take $1 million out of its annual budget without hurting education, it should explain how it can be done.

If the province thinks the Saanich school district can take $1 million out of its annual budget without hurting education, it should explain how it can be done. The district has been trimming budgets to the bone for several years, so don’t insult school trustees with talk of picking low-hanging fruit. That tree was stripped long ago.

Expenses have been rising faster than revenues, but district officials thought they were headed into the next fiscal year with a balanced budget and without reducing services.

“Our school district is no longer in enrolment decline,” board chairwoman Victoria Martin told the Times Colonist editorial board last week, “so our financial picture should be improving.”

The balanced budget was achieved with $700,000 in savings of administration costs, which the board hoped would be used to maintain educational services.

Then came a hand grenade from the provincial government: It asked the district to turn over the $700,000 in administrative savings, and in addition, tossed in a $300,000 annual bill for a new provincial network for Internet services.

In recent years, the Saanich district has balanced its budget by taking from its surplus, but that surplus has been exhausted. The board pondered filing a budget that includes $984,000 in anticipated government revenues, money the government has not promised.

In effect, that would mean a deficit budget, which is not allowed in this province. School boards that do not pass a balanced budget by June 30 are subject to discipline, which can including firing by the minister.

In 2012, the Cowichan Valley school board submitted a budget with a $3.7-million deficit because the majority of board members thought making any more cuts would harm the quality of education. The government dismissed the nine-member elected board, replacing it with an appointed trustee.

Martin says that without prior-year surpluses, other than a small accumulated surplus for contingencies, the district has no money in the bank to cover the budget shortfall. She said the board has cut as much as possible for years, including closing six schools, and balancing the budget will mean reducing the number of teachers and support staff and cutting back on administrative time.

“We could maintain programs at the same level, except for the money the government is taking from us,” said superintendent Keven Elder. Even at that, he said, that level is already too low after years of budget constraints.

The board has decided to back off from filing a deficit budget after Martin, Elder and other Saanich school district officials met with Education Minister Mike Bernier last week. The board will discuss the budget again June 1.

Bernier said the Vancouver and Saanich school districts are the only ones ones facing a budget shortfall, but Martin thinks other districts will soon face the same problem. “We think we may be the canary in the coal mine,” she said.

The Greater Victoria school board balanced its 2016-17 budget without making serious cuts, but it achieved that by using $5.3 million from its surplus, and is predicting a harder time next year because of the lack of a surplus to draw from.

The government has to balance fiscal demands from all quarters, and there’s no bottomless pitcher of money. Nevertheless, it’s dangerous to keep cutting back on education.

The Saanich school board is not political. The trustees are moderate, intelligent people. They are trying to do what they were elected to do: provide a decent quality of education. If the province knows how to do that in spite of an unexpected $1-million hit to the budget, it should step forward and help.