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LOOKING BACK LOOKING AHEAD: Fiscal furore

New Westminster residents could be forgiven if they thought the board of education with its numerous deficits during the past decade or so has been like the proverbial little Dutch boy with his finger in the hole in the dike.

In 2013, the dam burst and the district has been flooded by red ink.

In 2014, the board of education will have the unenviable task of rebuilding its financial structure in its wake. (If they’re looking to use duct tape to fix the problem they won’t be able to because the supply budgets at most of the schools—slashed to 10 per cent of the 2012-13 levels—is already running into the red.)

Although the district has had a few deficit budgets over the past decade, New Westminster’s troubles really began to build in 2012. Trustees went to the summer break believing they had a balanced budget for 2011-12. When they returned they learned it was actually a $2.8-million shortfall.

On top of that, further investigation revealed the proposed 2012-13 budget wasn’t as rosy as first believed either and by early 2013 trustees were having to make some tough decisions. Every meeting they held seemed to bring more bad news.

They hired consultant Joan Axford to investigate the district finances and she found many systemic issues that needed correcting.

In the midst of the furore, secretary-treasurer Brian Sommerfeldt went on sick leave in February and parted ways with the district in March. For going away he received an 18-month severance package that is expected to pay him more than $200,000. To save money, assistant superintendent Al Balanuik absorbed Sommerfeldt’s duties into his while the board hired a former assistant secretary-treasurer for the board, Sheldon Lee, to be its director of finance.

By the time the school year was over the district’s accumulated debt was more than $5 million and the board was making major cuts just to balance the 2013-14 budget, chopping the equivalent of nearly 20 full-time teachers and 27 special education positions.

The discussions got emotional as teachers, support workers and parents pleaded with the board.

On top of all their woes, the district’s overseas business company was shut down in 2013 because provincial regulations didn’t make it feasible to continue to operate. The last couple of years it had been contributing significant profit to the district, but the board can’t count on that revenue any more.

More reality checks arrived in November. Three more educational assistants were laid off because enrolment in the district’s alternate and aboriginal programs was down. In addition, New Westminster secondary’s principal Phil Cookson encouraged parents to get involved in district budget discussions in the new year. He told them the NWSS operating budget for 2013-14 had been slashed from $800,000 to $65,000 and all that had already been spent.

The 2013-14 fiscal year is a grace period the province has given New Westminster to get its financial house in order. It got off to a good start with a $500,000 surplus in the first three months, according to Balanuik at a December board meeting. However, starting with the 2014-15 budget the district must begin paying back the debt it owes.

That’s going to be a challenge. Districts across British Columbia are being forced to cut back because they won’t have enough money to cover the expected costs, particularly for wage increases. On top of the pain every other district has to go through, New Westminster must find ways to save money to pay down the debt.

“We need to find that balance of still offering those great opportunities while still being in good fiscal health and start repaying the deficit,” said new board chair Jonina Campbell.

To make that happen, outgoing chair Michael Ewen admitted in November some of the district’s education programs may be on the line.

On top of all the budgetary woes, the board has to find someone to be its educational leader in tough economic times. District superintendent John Woudzia will be moving on to a new position at Vancouver Community College after being in the top position for eight years.

(The budgetary debate has overshadowed the issue that has plagued the board for more than a decade which is building new schools. QayQayt elementary is well on its way to being open next September, with construction on a new middle school at the site of the current John Robson elementary on track to begin shortly afterward. While the talk about building a NWSS replacement was quieter in 2013 it is far from being over since underlying issues, such as building around an old cemetery, aren’t even close to being resolved.)

The elephant in the room for the board as it makes its crucial budgetary decisions is the municipal election in November. Discussions at the board table have ranged from amicable to acrimonious and can be entertaining in a train-wreck kind of way.

The seven-member board is divided on many issues and often the bickering can be interpreted as petty. Four trustees backed by the New Westminster and District Labour Council hold the majority. Ewen, who is now vice chair, is in his 34th year while James Janzen has been on the board for 20 years. Jonina Campbell and David Phelan are first-term trustees. They are opposed on many controversial matters by Casey Cook, MaryAnn Mortensen and Lisa Graham, all of whom ran under the Voice New Westminster banner.

While trustees scrutinize every last line in the district’s budget to save money, conversely their handling of it will come under the scrutiny of many parents and voters.

 

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