Looking Back/Looking Ahead: School district’s deficit

A rendering of the new elementary to be built on the old St. Mary’s Hospital site. Construction is slated to begin in 2013. - Artist rendering
A rendering of the new elementary to be built on the old St. Mary’s Hospital site. Construction is slated to begin in 2013.
— image credit: Artist rendering

Back to school meant back to the cutting board for New Westminster school trustees in 2012.

When the board of education members headed off for summer holidays after their final meeting in June they were feeling pretty good about the district’s finances. They’d been told it appeared the 2011-12 budget would be balanced and the previous $521,000 deficit that was carrying over would be covered.

Hopefully they enjoyed their summer vacation, because their first day back they learned appearances were deceiving and the district’s finances had  a failing grade in 2011-12. Instead of a balanced budget the district was actually headed for a deficit of more than $2.2 million for 2011-12. Combined with the previous deficit they were looking at a shortfall approaching $2.8 million overall.

That’s an F on any report card.

This was nothing new, however, since it was the district’s third deficit in 11 years. Parents demanded to know what happened. The answers were vague.

The board’s composition wasn’t exactly harmonious to begin with, and they were divided on how to deal with it. Board chair James Janzen and vice chair Michael Ewen, now chair, proposed a consultant be hired to look into what happened and how to fix it. Other trustees weren’t so sure it was the right way to go since consultants had been hired previously and the problems hadn’t been fixed. It took a while for the board to decide to go ahead, meeting several times behind closed doors to hammer out the consultant’s terms of reference.

At the end of October they finally decided to go ahead and announced a couple of weeks later former Ministry of Education finance employee Joan Axford had got the gig at a cost of about $15,000.

In late November, her report painted a picture of the district’s financial management tracking procedures leaving a lot to be desired. Axford warned the board if the district kept on operating the way it had it would have an additional $2.2 million deficit for 2012-13, on top of the one it was already grappling with.

Also in November, the New Westminster parent advisory council passed a motion of non-confidence in the board of education and senior administration for their handling of the district’s finances. The NWSS PAC also called for the provincial auditor-general and the Ministry of Education to intervene. The motions were backed by several other school PACs.

They even received support from the board, sort of, with trustees voting to ask the auditor-general to monitor its handling of resolving the deficit.

Trustees head into the new calendar year still trying to figure out what they can do for the rest of the 2012-13 school year to reduce the deficit.

During December, superintendent John Woudzia came up with a 27-point plan that would cover all but $76,000 of the deficit. The trustees said that wasn’t enough, and told senior administration to go back to the spreadsheets and give them options over and above what would be required to recover the deficit. They wanted to have more choices to decide what could go and what could stay.

In addition, some trustees balked at one of Woudzia’s proposals to sell land the district owns in Queensborough to cover $450,000 of the deficit saying eventually it could serve as the district’s new works yard. Although Ewen supports that sale, he admitted the district would eventually have to deal with finding a new maintenance yard.

Woudzia also proposed deferring payments of other capital expenditures that are due, but some trustees are worried they’ll only be creating more problems for future school boards.

A week later, Woudzia came up with basically the same plan but threw in another $500,000 in staffing adjustments, which would see a lot of redeployment of staff to cover absences in the district instead of replacing them. He said there will be no layoffs and that the move would affect the classroom as little as possible.

The details of the “adjustments” still need to be worked out with the board, the teachers union, the support staff union (CUPE), and other stakeholders. NWTU president Grant Osborne said the district has already cut all the fat and it will be difficult avoiding cutting into bone and muscle.

The board is trying to fast track the process of making the final decisions on how to recover the deficit, even soliciting public feedback online instead of at meetings. Both Ewen and trustee Casey Cook say the sooner they decide the more money they can recover.

Trustees may have put sharp knives on their wish list to Santa. They’ll need them as they put Woudzia’s line-by-line options on the chopping block in January.

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