Harsh reality hits NWSS parents

  - NewsLeader file photo
— image credit: NewsLeader file photo

Parents of New Westminster secondary students shouldn't be shocked the school's operating budget for 2013-14 has already run out, says board of education chair Michael Ewen.

Principal Phil Cookson's message in the NWSS' monthly newsletter last week included some harsh realities that alarmed parents. He told them in order to balance this year's district budget the board had slashed the school's operating budget from its usual $800,000 to $65,000, and that money has already been spent.

NWSS parent advisory council (PAC) chair Stephen Bruyneel said although the PAC knew it was coming, it hadn't been broadly communicated with parents in the district.

"On the one hand I want to give Phil a lot of credit and the previous principals because I understand they were able to put some away for a rainy day. It's a storm right now. All that money that had been saved is essentially gone. How he is going to get through the rest of the year I don't know," said Bruyneel. "This is stuff you have to have for everyday, and this is stuff they don't have and may not have for next year."

With the district obligated to begin paying back the approximately $5 million in accumulated debt in 2014-15, Bruyneel said parents want to know what it means for their children next year because many felt this year there wasn't enough of an advance warning.

"Letting them know at least gives them time to plan," said Bruyneel. "Bad news is bad, but if you know early enough you can plan for it ."

He added options for parents would include rallying to raise funds for their school or sending their kids outside the district.

"The bottom line for us is the earlier we know the better," said Bruyneel.

Ewen said when the board decided to cut school supply budgets to 10 per cent of previous ones it was reported in the local press.

"You can say it to people and have a decent idea of what it means, but until reality hits people don't realize what it actually means," said Ewen.

He believes the issue highlights the need for the district to have a communications specialist to spread the word directly.

"Obviously it's not getting out, and not that many people are reading the papers," said Ewen. "People aren't as engaged as they need to be until they need to be."

Despite the deficit, Ewen said looking at making room for a communications specialist might be worth it.

"Well, can we afford not to? The question is A what would be the cost, and B what would be the cost of not doing it, and this would be a great example, and C is there some way we can rearrange the responsibilities so we can afford it?" said Ewen.

He pointed out the board can't make too many decisions for next year or for topping up this year's operating budget until it knows what kind of funding will be available including provincial government holdback funds that usually comes around Christmas. But he also understands why parents want to know soon.

"I get that, but I don't know at what point we'll be able to make the decision," said Ewen, who added some of the district's education programs may be on the line next year. "We don't want to announce we're cutting a program and then have the province announce they're increasing funding."

Trustee Casey Cook said it's easy to see how the news is alarming to parents.

"I thought when our information went out, that we were clear about the difficult situation we were in on our budgets in and around individual schools, but even so it's very far reaching in terms of the decision we've had to make," said Cook. "What we have to do is make some very, very significant decisions. It's a structural deficit and we're going to have to make some structural decisions."

In his message, Cookson encouraged parents and stakeholders to become involved by attending the next PAC meeting, Jan. 16, and providing input to the school board through its budget process.

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