By Tina Comeau
In a 5-4 vote, the Tri-County Regional School Board has approved a budget that sees a cut of 41.67 full time equivalent (FTE) positions from schools and central office and, according to the motion to approve the budget, causes the board “severe concern” as to how the cuts will affect its students.
The board had to cut around $2.5 million in spending. This was due to a reduction in provincial funding of 1.7 per cent, coupled with cost of living increases. The budget that was approved is in the amount of $67,450,227.
The cut in teaching staff is 22 NSTU positions, which goes beyond the reduction of teachers that is resulting from declining enrolment. However, with retirements the board says no permanent teachers will be laid off.
And while the majority of FTE reductions is due to entire positions that have been cut, in a few cases people will see a reduction in their working hours.
Several board members did not want to see the budget approved at the board’s May 1 meeting, saying they wanted instead to explore other options to try and diminish the cuts that the board had to make in its budget. One of those options would be to ask the Department of Education for permission to dip into an accumulated surplus and apply that money to the budget. Boards must have permission from the department to use the surplus, although the last time the board asked to do so the answer it got back was no. The board did approve a motion to ask for permission once again.
The school board’s finance department expressed concern with delaying the passage of the budget since the board is already one month into the new fiscal year and delaying the budget would leave some staff members “hanging in the wind” as far as knowing what their status was.
The following is a breakdown of the reduction of 41.67 full time equivalent positions for the 2012-2013 budget:
•22 NSTU positions (Approximately 11 FTE are due to declining enrolment and the overall number also takes retirements into account. As a result, the board says while it will have fewer teachers, it is not looking at a lay off of any permanent teachers.)
• two custodians
• 3.77 library technicians (This will be a reduction in hours for all library technicians.)
• one school administrative assistant
• 0.2 in Human Resources
• 0.2 in Finance
• one in Operations/ Transportation
• one administrative assistant (Programs and Student Services)
• one coordinator of programs (The board will have one Coordinator of Programs P-12 as opposed to a coordinator for P-6 and one for 7-12)
• one Options and Opportunities consultant
• one school psychologist (a vacancy will not be filled for 2012-2013)
• one severe learning disabilities specialist
• 0.5 assistive technology consultant
• one early literacy position – 1FTE
• five program support assistants (The budget reduction of PSAs is from 118 FTE to 113 FTE. Allotments to schools will be made as per regular protocol.)
School board superintendent Lisa Doucet said this has been a very challenging budget process, noting the cuts in this year’s budget come on top of around $2.6 million in reductions the school board had to make in the previous year.
“We have scrutinized budget lines in the areas of professional development, travel, supplies/ materials, and operational budgets for schools and central office. However, in order to present a balanced budget, which is required, we did have to reduce 41.67 FTE from central office and the schools,” said Doucet. “These reductions are in no way a reflection of the job performance of those individuals affected. We appreciate all of the hard work and dedication of every member of our team at the Tri-County Regional School Board.”
Doucet said while the Tri-County Regional School Board has made every effort possible to protect the classroom and services to the classrooms, “these reductions on top of the reductions in staff from last year will certainly have an impact on the supports and services provided to our schools and classrooms.”
As for other budget areas, spending in professional development has been cut by $189,000 in areas of in-service, conferences and travel, although the board says the cut excludes the NSTU’s PD fund.
Another $200,000 has been cut from the school capital maintenance budget.
Board members were told two upcoming school closures – Westport elementary in Digby County and Yarmouth Junior High – did help in the budget process. As well, over the past few years the school board has introduced energy efficient programs that have helped to reduce heating costs and other expenses.
Still, Wade Tattrie, the board’s director of finance, said about the budget process, “It has not been an easy task at all.”
“What you see before you in this budget document is a long process, it wasn’t easy, difficult decisions had to be made,” he said.
The staffing reductions caused concern for board members.
“I don’t feel that I can support this budget,” said board member Andrea Huskilson. “We can’t operate under these financial restraints and give our students the support that they need and the education they deserve. We have schools . . . that have more students coming in this year than they had last year but yet they’re being cut teachers.”
She wanted to see surplus dollars applied to the budget.
Asked about the accumulated surplus following the meeting, Tattrie said there is around $1 million in the surplus. But he said school boards are not allowed to just tap into it. Which is why, he said, while school boards are not allowed to have a deficit at the end of their budget year, the Tri-County board also tries to minimize how much money goes into that accumulated surplus.
“It basically sits there in your financial statements and you can’t have access to it. So if you grow it by $200,000 or $300,000 in the fiscal year, that means that’s money that you can’t access for services, so we try to minimize that at the end of the fiscal year,” he said. “Up until about two years ago we were allowed, with permission by the province, to actually use it to balance our budget and with the Back to Balance thing coming into affect, (the province) indicated we would no longer be able to use the accumulated surplus until they have their books in order.”
But like Huskilson, other board members were not in favour of approving the budget and felt the board should once again ask for permission to use the surplus to help decrease the cuts.
“I feel we should pursuing all avenues we can, and we haven’t pursued that one yet. I know we’re probably going to hit a brick wall, but I think we should take a run at it anyway,” said Ron Hines, who pointed out the board is underfunded to begin with. “We didn’t have any cushion to cut.”
Hines added the message the board would be sending by approving the budget was that “everything is A-OK,” when it’s not, he said.
Board member Brian Noble said he had a problem not only with the budget, but the process itself, saying he had only received the final draft of the budget the evening before the board’s May 1 meeting.
“I still have some questions, I will go on record as saying I voted in favour of the NSTU profile sheet, the reductions there, with great hesitancy,” said Noble, adding he thinks the board needs to look at ways it can increase its board-generated revenue.
The four board members to vote against the approval of the budget were Huskilson, Hines, Noble and Faye Haley.
While other board members expressed severe concern about the impact the budget will have, they also felt delaying the budget would put the school board and staff in limbo. Voting to approve the budget were school board chair Donna Tidd, vice-chair Anne Moses and board members Joan Brewer, Alvin Comeau and Nick Pippy.
Two board members, Alden Fells and Janice Francis, were not present at the meeting.
Meanwhile, asked about next year, the board’s chair said the board never knows what to expect from year to year.
“We can always hope that next year we won’t be cut but we don’t know until next spring gets here and they give us our profile sheets,” said Tidd. “We just keep our fingers crossed.”