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SD40's deficit in the spotlight

A public consultation meeting on the New Westminster school district's $2.8 million deficit did little to answer questions about what went wrong or come up with solutions to fix the problem.

Many parents who came to the meeting at New Westminster secondary on Tuesday weren't satisfied with the answers. However, district parent advisory council president Rob Peregoodoff wasn't as unhappy as some. He said the presentation by district secretary-treasurer Brian Sommerfeldt wasn't supposed to reveal why it happened.

He did, however, say on Wednesday the presentation told a "compelling story" about how the district's spending compared to similar-sized school districts, as well as neighbouring ones, and how New Westminster had given priority on spending in the classroom over the years.

Peregoodoff did, however, take exception to the district having the gathering break out into groups to discuss how to eliminate the deficit, saying it's not the parents' responsibility to solve the district's problems.

"We are not the experts. I know many parents are passionate and upset about this, and they want to have a greater say in the solution. I'm a little more conservative in that because ultimately the difficult conversations are going have to be had by the board, the secretary-treasurer's office and the bargaining units," said Peregoodoff, who believes the Ministry of Education is the key overseer and it's up to the board of education trustees to ask the tough questions of district staff.

"We have to put some faith in that protocol and that process. We have to believe the checks and balances will be in place that there will be transparency in this process."

Like many parents at the meeting, trustee Casey Cook was looking for some answers because until the reasons are identified it's difficult to figure out how to get rid of the deficit.

Cook wants to know why on June 17, the secretary-treasurer reported the district was in a surplus position for the 2011-12 school year, but by Aug. 28 the board was told it had a $2.1 million deficit which grew to $2.8 million by Sept. 26.

He's looking for what the finance planning process was, what caused those plans to go awry and why there wasn't any monitoring to catch the problems.

Cook said when the district had deficit in 2001, a consultant identified the need for New Westminster to develop a strategic plan, which still hasn't been done, making it difficult to set spending priorities.

"It's like going on a trip without a map," said Cook.

That's one of the reason he believes the trustees have to take some of the blame for the district's third deficit in 11 years.

"Ultimately as trustees we have failed in our fiduciary responsibilities to protect the district. We need to own up to that as trustees. We basically needed to have effective and efficient reporting mechanisms to the board, and we did not. We were caught by surprise and we need to correct our practices," said Cook.

Vice-chair Michael Ewen said the board clearly didn't press for important information and has to take some responsibility.

"The board made some decisions that I think at the end of this process are going to come back and not be the best decisions," said Ewen.

He pointed out deciding not to replace assistant secretary-treasurer Doug Wong when he was let go in 2009 may have contributed to the problem because it took away administrative support for Sommerfeldt.

"We were penny-wise and pound foolish," said Ewen, who has been a trustee for 32 years.

He said one of the choices made by the board in the past was to emphasize placing dollars in the classroom and less into administration—both senior and school based—and in maintenance and operations. That's why the board decided to use all the revenue it received from the Ministry of Education instead of building contingency funds.

"We've had every secretary-treasurer we've had tell us we should have one, including the present one. Other districts have built them up over the years," said Ewen. "It would be nice to have, but I still can't justify not providing services to children on the chance in the future something might happen. I don't know how we get around that … At some point we're going to have to deny services to kids [to have a contingency fund], but having said that at some points we're going to have to recover the deficit."

Hiring a consultant to look into the district's finances and to help figure out how to recover the deficit is still being discussed by the board. The province has told the board to come up with a business plan to recover the deficit by the end of the month, which means it must be available for approval by trustees at its next meeting on Tuesday (Oct. 23).

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