The Chinook School Division's budget for the 2019-20 school year was approved at a regular board meeting on June 10, but trustees expressed their frustrations and concerns about what they consider to be inadequate funding from the provincial government for education services in southwest Saskatchewan.
Two trustees voted against the budget, but those who voted in favour also expressed reservations about the budget. There was a general feeling that the board and administration came up with the best possible budget under challenging circumstances
“I wish to express my protest of the funding that's being provided to Chinook School Division,” Shane Andrus told the meeting. “I think fundamentally the funding formula that the ministry is using discriminates against rural divisions like ours. For the third year in a row we're faced with reduction, reduction, reduction to the point now where even in deeper ways we're digging into our piggy bank, our reserves. We need the Government of Saskatchewan to provide funding that is predictable and sustainable for our kids and for our schools. We need the Ministry of Education to examine the funding formula and to create a formula that's fair for our rural division, and with a heavy heart and respectfully I will cast my vote against this budget.”
Katelyn Toney, who also voted against the budget, said she is in favour of the hard work that went into the development of this budget.
“I recognize that this board and our administration have worked their very hardest and their very best to use the money the province has provided us with to deliver the best and most equitable education to all of our students,” she mentioned. “The problem is it is not enough money. I'm not in favour of the lack of adequate and equitable funding from the province to not only our division, but the education sector of this province in entirety. So with that in mind I must vote against this budget, again not because I disagree with our designation of the funds we have been provided, but because I disagree with the inequity of the revenues we are being provided.”
Al Bridal expressed his support for the budget, but he voiced concern over the sustainability of the current funding situation.
“I'm not happy, as well as everyone else here, about the funding from the province,” he said. “We do have inadequate funding. The only way we can make this budget work is to dip into our reserves ... Our reserves will not last forever and that's not a good way to run a household, a company or a school division by dipping into your reserves all the time.”
The Chinook School Division’s total operational expenditures during the 2019-20 school year will be approximately $86.99 million and revenues from grant taxes and other sources will be $82.15 million. The budget deficit is projected to be $4.84 million, but the cash budget will be balanced through the use of $2.28 million from reserve funds.
Board Chair Kimberly Pridmore and Vice-chair Katelyn Toney spoke to the media about the budget after the meeting.
“I think you heard the concerns by each board member today that year after year the restraints get harder to deal with and we are just struggling more and more every year to find the things that we need to do for kids in our division,” Pridmore said.
Toney felt a review of the funding formula is essential, especially with regard to the application of the formula to rural school divisions.
“The funding formula isn't sustainable,” she said. “We won't be able to continue providing education at the level we can right now going forward with the money we're getting.”
Pridmore emphasized the school division cannot continue for much longer to dip into reserve funds to balance the budget, and it is at best only a short-term solution.
“We have really dedicated, hardworking, caring staff out there, so we know that and we know that they're willing to do whatever it takes to help the students that are in front of them, but we also know that's not sustainable,” she said. “We know that they're putting in long days and we can't expect them to do that forever. So we're hopeful that province-wide the ministry will look at the health and well-being of our staff too and that they will start allocating money the way they need to protect the people that are teaching our children.”
According to Rod Quintin, the Chinook School Division’s chief financial officer, the ability to use reserve funds will only be an option for a few more years.
“There’s probably three or four years of time to kind of live off the reserves, but every time you draw on your reserves, you actually reduce your ability to generate a little bit of income off of those reserves,” he said. “So that is going to impact us next year and eventually something has to give. We have been in a deficit position for three years running now. We thought we were getting pretty close last year to balance and we found that we just couldn’t achieve it this year, and really there was no funding increase to offset our increased cost.”
He felt the school division is running out of options to find efficiencies and reduce expenditure while still providing services in classrooms.
“We’ve been saying for a while now we really have addressed all areas in terms of efficiencies that we realistically can address without putting some pretty significant impact on the classroom,” he noted.
The operational funding allocation from the Ministry of Education to Chinook School Division for 2019-20 will increase by 0.03 per cent over the current school year. The school division will implement a number of cost-cutting measures in the budget to counter inflationary cost pressures, which are estimated to be about two per cent annually. The governance budget will be cut by 2.5 per cent and the administration budget reduction will be 5.2 per cent. The instruction budget will increase by 0.9 per cent, mainly to cover negotiated salary cost increases.
The total projected expenditures will increase by about $911,000 (1.1 per cent). The significant cost drivers in the 2019-20 budget are salaries ($527,000), energy costs that include a carbon tax expense of $310,000 and bus replacement purchases of $1.06 million for 16 buses.
“We deferred capital purchase of buses last year, knowing full well we’re going to have to address that,” he said. “So there’s a large amount of cash involved in this year’s budget to purchase buses that we know we’re going to need, and really address last year’s deferral.”
There will be a reduction of two full-time equivalent teaching staff positions, which will be achieved through attrition. Some other staff redeployments will help to address the teacher staff reductions in schools due to enrolment reductions.
Student enrolment in the Chinook School Division went down by one per cent in the last five years and there are 12 per cent fewer teachers. The school division expenditures have been reduced by five per cent, but funding has been reduced by 10 per cent. The funding gap therefore widened from 10 per cent to 15 per cent over five years.
Quintin said it will be a real challenge to find more money in the budget to deal with the $2.28 million in cash shortfall.
“We need to find a way to get that number to zero, but with the demands that we have in today’s revenue stream we’re not able to get there and I’m not sure that we’re going to get there any time soon, because our revenues have basically flatlined and our expenditures continue to increase at the rate of inflation plus anything that we may have deferred,” he said.
The current funding formula provides the school division with about 90 cents for every dollar spend on student transportation.
“There are other areas where we believe that we aren’t funded adequately, but we’ve been able to manage those costs,” he said. “The impact will show up more this year around facility funding, because we expect that because of our increased cost related to utilities that we’re going to have probably a bit of a shortfall on the facility funding side. … We’ve managed the teacher staffing, we’ve managed all the other things just through our staffing levels. That doesn’t mean it’s the proper staffing level. It’s the staffing level we can afford.”
Some expenditures will be deferred in the 2019-20 budget to keep the cash shortfall under control. These deferred expenses will mostly be related to operational costs.
“So we might just choose to defer certain activities in facilities and transportation so that we can keep all of the resources possible in the classroom,” he said.