School board facing $1-million shortfall

FORT FRANCES—As a result of changes to provincial funding formulas, the Rainy River District School Board is facing a $1-million shortfall for the 2006/07 school year—and will have to make cuts to balance its budget.
Special grants for remote, rural, and distant schools have been realigned while the declining enrolment grant has been slashed, Superintendent of Business Laura Mills told the board during its regular meeting here Tuesday night.
“On top of that, the grant for utilities was increased by two percent in the face of actual increases of 12-15 percent, resulting in a total budget shortfall of $1 million,” the board said in a press release.
“We will prioritize our options, keeping in mind the overall welfare of our students,” pledged board chair Ron McAlister.
The shortfall comes after the province announced an injection of $600 million into the education system. But that money largely will go to other boards, Mills noted.
“All the northern boards are in the same situation,” she added.
“When the additional dollars were announced for education, we were optimistic that we would get a small portion, or at least be able to maintain the status quo,” said Atikokan trustee Judy Eluik.
“It comes as a shock to have such a large reduction for a small school board,” she added.
Most school programming will stay in place for the coming year, but will “come under heavy scrutiny over the next year,” Mills warned.
Administration will have to review programs and make recommendations for cuts, which then will go before the board.
“The loss of dollars coupled with the timing of the funding release is devastating,” the board said in its release.
Northern boards have to commit to staffing earlier than boards in the rest of Ontario to ensure adequate staffing levels for the new year, Education Director Jack McMaster explained.
As a result, the local public school board already had committed to staffing for 2006/07 before the funding changes were announced.
Staffing costs represent 76 percent of the board’s budget, meaning cuts amounting to $1 million will have to come from the remaining 24 percent.
“When we have to cut $1 million from approximately one-quarter of our budget, it makes for some hard decisions,” the release stated.
The problem is compounded by the fact the board is projecting a drop in enrolment of about 56 students at its elementary schools for next year. This also will result in a loss of funding from the province.
“It was a huge surprise at the end of the year,” McMaster said.
The board currently is working on its budget for the 2006/07 school year, and is expected to have it finalized by the end of August.
“The cuts will negatively impact about 23 northern boards and school authorities, and these communities are already suffering economically, caused by multi-job losses and business downturn,” said Fort Frances trustee Gord McBride.
“Only about five percent of public school students live in northern communities, so we have to stand up and be counted,” he stressed.
McMaster said he spoke with fellow education directors from northern boards via teleconference last week, and noted they are planning to communicate with the Ministry of Education together to protest the funding changes.
Also at last Tuesday night’s meeting, the board learned its success rate for first-time eligible students writing the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test was 88 percent—four percent higher than the provincial average.
“Our board did extremely well,” said Al McManaman, secondary curriculum co-ordinator.
One key aspect of reaching that success rate is in cultivating a love of reading in children at a young age.
“Over the years, our board has been doing a great job at that,” McManaman added.
(Fort Frances Times)