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Board balances budget

New Westminster school trustee Lisa Graham -
New Westminster school trustee Lisa Graham
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New Westminster school trustees did what they had to do Tuesday. They're not happy about it. So are a lot of other people.

The board approved several measures to balance its 2014-15 budget and avoid a $2.69 million shortfall.

The moves come a year after the district cut the equivalent of 62 positions from its 2013-14 budget. Another 28 jobs are slated to be slashed for 2014-15. The cuts include 15 teachers, 4.5 clerical staff, three educational assistants and three maintenance and custodial workers.

"[School district employees] are going to be devastated. They still don't know how it's going to affect them," said CUPE recording secretary Charlene Ducholke, who works in the counselling office at New West secondary. "We're on a thin thread at work. The morale in this district is wretched."

Trustee David Phelan said the deficit problems are not unique to New Westminster. He called on the community to advocate for more education funding from the province. But trustee Lisa Graham said New West is unique. The board has been dealing with accumulated deficits for years while other districts have not.

"It will take eight years to clear the [accumulated deficit of nearly $5 million]. By then it will be 2011. That will be 21 years of operating with a deficit or in a deficit recovery state, so we are different," said Graham, who is in her fourth term as a trustee. "This is the most comprehensive budget I've ever seen. There is transparency, there is integrity."

Graham and James Janzen opposed the cutting of three education assistants and child and youth care workers to save $129,000.

"I do not support the cuts of EAs because we have had a year of cuts," said Graham.

Trustee MaryAnn Mortensen supported the EA cuts only because superintendent/CEO John Gaiptman assured her if there were more special needs students than anticipated support staff would be added.

CUPE president Marcel Marsolais said the cuts would hurt. "Society is going to pay for it." He added reductions will mean 40 less child youth care workers since last June. "There is no respite for those working there already. To lose two more would be too much."

The board approved changes to the custodial workload formula to save $109,000. That's a loss of two custodial positions. But Marsolais said the formula has already been cut to the bone. "It can't be tweaked any more. The schools are not safe." The move, along with one to not fill an existing trades vacancy, were opposed by Janzen and vice-chair Michael Ewen.

The district's academic night school was eliminated to save $100,000. The decision came despite emotional pleas from several adult students Tuesday. But Janzen said the program is losing money. Attempts to explore ways to generate revenue "just haven't come about."

Continuing education will also close for a savings of $67,000.

The board confirmed it will not change class sizes at the elementary and middle school levels. But it will increase the student-teacher ratio at NWSS from 22.95 per class to 23.4, a loss of 3.5 teachers. The district's non-enrolling students and alternate youth programs ratios will also be adjusted.

In case trustees don't close Hume Park elementary, the board directed staff to come up with another $76,000 in savings by June 1. The eventual fate of the little school on the city's eastern edge will be discussed at a May 20 meeting.

Although the preliminary budget was passed Tuesday, that doesn't mean there can't be changes down the road. Ewen said the board is willing to listen if anyone has any idea of how to achieve savings.

"The budget needs constant vigilance and constant tinkering," said Ewen.

New Westminster Teachers Union president Grant Osborne told the board many of their projections were too conservative. He feared the district would eliminate or lay off more people than necessary.

District parent advisory council chair Beth Ott said it appeared what was said during four public sessions in the month of April didn't show up in the budget adjustments.

"It's not clear to me how the community consultation is reflected in all of this. It seems to be the same all along. If there's no change it begs the question, what was that?" said Ott. "If [community consultation] is not reflected in the budget then what's the point. We could have done something different those four nights."

But board chair Jonina Campbell said the stakeholders were heard but some tough decisions had to be made. "The board is in a shortfall position. The money has to come from somewhere. It is not a satisfactory solution to everyone."

The 2014-15 budget does restore about $1 million to the district supply budget. In 2013-14, it was slashed dramatically. New Westminster secondary received $65,000, less than a tenth of what it received the previous year.

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