Victoria school district pulls off a thin surplus without cuts or layoffs

The Greater Victoria School District will be able to balance its budget next year without laying off staff or cutting programs, board chairwoman Peg Orcherton said Wednesday.

Despite declining enrolment and rising costs, senior staff have put together a status quo budget for 2013-14 with a razor-thin surplus of $16,000.

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“This is a squeaker,” Orcherton said. “We’ve been able to maintain very, very good programs that our students and parents are happy with, and we’ve been able to maintain staffing levels. Much as we’d like to increase those staffing levels, at least we’re not looking at cutting any staff.”

District costs continue to outstrip revenues and money from the B.C. government by more than $8 million a year. But the district has erased that “structural deficit” each year by finding additional savings or unexpected sources of cash.

This year, it managed to come up with enough “one-time” money to wipe out the deficit by carrying forward:

• $1.3 million left from 2012

• $2 million in extra grant money from the province

• $400,000 in revenue from investments and building rentals

• $800,000 in benefits savings

• $500,000 in savings achieved by spending less on teachers’ salaries than expected, in part because younger teachers have been hired at lower pay levels

• $500,000 in savings achieved by leaving vacant positions unfilled or by delaying recruitment

• $500,000 from a higher-than-expected enrolment of international students

The district also saved about $1.7 million by reducing spending on supplies and equipment.

“There was a conscious effort made to spend less so that we could have some monies available to us by the end of the year,” said Debra Laser, the board’s secretary-treasurer.

In addition, a mild winter allowed the district to save money on its utilities bills.

“We’re also reaping the benefits of having upgraded our facilities,” Laser said, citing the replacement of the Fairey Technical Building at Victoria High School as one example. “We’re benefiting from greater energy efficiencies in that new building.”

Recycling programs in schools, meanwhile, allowed the district to reduce garbage bins and cut back on the number of pickups. The total savings on utilities and waste management came to $600,000.

The operating budget of $172 million is based on a projected enrolment of 18,455 full-time school-age students — a drop of 258 from last September.

The proposed budget was unveiled at a school board meeting Wednesday. Members of the public will have a chance to comment on April 10, with final debate and approval of the budget slated for April 17.

Not everyone is thrilled at the prospect of another hold-the-line budget in which the district does its best with limited money. Trustee Diane McNally said consistent underfunding from the provincial government has reduced services, hurt students and led to the creeping privatization of public education.

“We’re all supposed to be getting entrepreneurial and inviting more and more international students here, who subsidize, in some of the districts, quite a good part of the budget,” she said. “Parent advisory councils are out there hustling to raise money. … And we have fees for academies.

“None of this should be happening in a fully funded public education system.”

McNally, a former teacher, proposed that the board take a stand and pass a deficit budget restoring services to levels that existed when the B.C. Liberals took power in 2001.

“At some point, somebody has to say we can’t live on crumbs anymore,” she said.

Orcherton said the board majority defeated the motion because it saw no benefit in trustees sacrificing their jobs to make a point. The B.C. government fired the Cowichan school trustees last year for passing a deficit budget and replaced them with a single unelected trustee.

“We believe that it’s necessary to have a locally elected board to have a voice for the community,” she said.

Orcherton acknowledged that districts are being asked to do “less with less,” but she said Laser and her staff deserve credit for preparing a budget that protects jobs and programs.

“We have managed to pull the rabbit out of the hat,” she said.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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