Calls for transparency on fixing district deficit

The head of the New Westminster Teachers' Union (NWTU) wants the school district to stem the anxiety of his membership by having open communication over how it will deal with its surprising $2.8 million 2011-12 budget deficit.

NWTU president Grant Osborne was joined in his call for transparency at Tuesday's board of education meeting by district parent advisory council (DPAC) president Rob Peregoodoff.

Osborne said the word 'deficit' makes teachers anxious, especially a shortage as large as that announced earlier this month. It makes them wonder what it could mean for them and that leads to rumours and speculation spreading through school halls and staff lunchrooms.

"Because of the size of the deficit, obviously it's had an effect on teachers and classes," said Osborne on Wednesday. "Mostly they don't know what to expect."

The Ministry of Education has given the district until the end of October to come up with a plan to balance the budget. Osborne is hoping Victoria will allow the district a few years to make up the difference.

"It's a sizable chunk. I don't see how it can be recovered within a year without some impactful cuts," said Osborne. "There's no fat to cut, we've been cutting into muscle and bones for years."

He said it's important for the district to involve all the stakeholders, including teachers, in developing the plan.

"There's been times where communication hasn't flowed as it should have in the past," said Osborne.

The district's relationship with DPAC has been strained the last few years, something Peregoodoff is hoping to mend. Parents need to be involved in finding out what went wrong and figuring out how to fix it, said Peregoodoff.

"We look at other districts and the involvement parents have in other districts around finance and budget committees, in some cases they have seats on committees. We have none," he said. "I hope they are open and transparent about what happened. Where did the money go? Where was the disconnect between what was budgeted and where we are at now."

He wasn't too happy, however, trustees decided "behind closed doors" to direct district staff to investigate the costs and benefits of hiring a financial consultant and an account manager to deal with the financial hole it is in.

"We need to have those debates and arguments in a public forum so that when the tough decisions are made the stakeholders have an understanding of the decisions," he said.

Trustees did decide to have the board's audit committee monitor expenditures on a monthly basis. This was in addition to moves made earlier requiring approval for overtime and hiring from secretary-treasurer Brian Sommerfeldt before proceeding.

Board chair James Janzen said those directives don't mean there is a hiring ban because contractual commitments must be met for class size and composition.

He would not speculate on what cuts will be made to balance the budget.

"The number one priority is to make sure we're going to be on track this year and then find out how we're going to fix the deficit," said Janzen. "The first thing we have to do is determine if there are any problems built into this year's budget. If this year's budget is on track, then we'll see where we can go on this."

When the deficit was announced, Janzen attributed the deficit to overspending of about $500,000 each on the district's online schools, general teaching costs, and maintenance and renovations on school district facilities. Trustee MaryAnn Mortensen said she was disappointed district staff didn't provide more details Tuesday.

"I must admit I was expecting a little bit more of a report on the [causes behind the deficit]," said Mortensen. "We have to identify what went wrong, without identifying what went wrong we can't figure out how to deal with it … My understanding is there is part of the deficit that some of it is structural. I know there is other answers there that we haven't heard."

She isn't opposed to hiring consultants or managers to fix the problems, if the expenditure can be justified. "Sometimes you have to spend money to save money."

Like Osborne and Peregoodoff, Mortensen is baffled as to why New Westminster is one of only three districts in the province in a deficit position, and particularly why the district did not learn from previous deficits it incurred in the last five years.

She also would like to see all the stakeholders—teachers, education assistants, parents and students—be kept informed, and for the information to be provided in easy-to-understand terms for everyone including the trustees.

"Understanding the reasons are key to fixing it. I think that's where some of this has gone sideways," she said.


• A report to the board Tuesday revealed New West had three employees that made at least $125,000 in 2011-12. (All districts are required to make public their top five earners who make that much.) Superintendent John Woudzia topped the list with a salary of $150,989 with pension and other compensation raising the total to $187,676. Assistant superintendent Al Balanuik received $159,598 with $132,032 of that being salary. Sommerfeldt collected a total of $157,495, including a salary of $130,213.


• Prior to Tuesday's board meeting, the district's business company held its annual general meeting. Former trustee Brent Atkinson was reappointed as chief executive officer as was its entire board of directors. Janzen said the company reported a profit of $360,000, but that won't help to reduce the district's deficit because a surplus from the business company had already been accounted for in the 2012-13 budget.

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