School board passes budget reluctantly

FORT FRANCES—Through a combination of cuts and transfers from reserves, the Rainy River District School Board was able to pass a balanced budget at a special meeting Tuesday night—but not without hesitation.
“I don’t think any one of us is happy with this budget. I think we will pass it reluctantly, though this is no reflection on the staff whatsoever,” board chair Ron McAlister said just prior to the vote.
The public board found itself short $2.2 million going into budget meetings earlier this summer due to cuts and realignments to provincial funding, as well as declining enrolment.
In order to deal with the shortfall, the board agreed to transfer $1.1 million from classroom and working fund reserves, and made cuts to balance the remaining $1.1 million.
“Drawing from reserves for this budget is a Band-Aid solution,” Fort Frances trustee Dan Belluz said. “I am disappointed in how the unexpected changes to the funding model have reduced our grants.”
The Ministry of Education announced the changes in June—too late for most boards to make adjustments to staffing levels due to signed collective agreements.
Salary and benefit costs account for 74 percent of the public board’s expenditures.
“Not only was it ill-timed, as we had already committed 76 percent of our anticipated funding to staffing, but the slashing of the geographic circumstances grant left us in the unenviable position of cutting the $1.1 million from 24 percent of the budget,” McAlister noted.
The funding shortfalls meant the board’s administration had to make cuts to balance the budget.
“There were lots of cuts, lots of adjustments, lots of thinking at the end of June,” said Laura Mills, the board’s superintendent of business. “We tried to look at areas to not impact students greatly.
“We’re hoping that what we’re presenting tonight [Tuesday] will have a minimum effect on our students,” she added.
The board did not specify where the $1.1 million in cuts were made.
“The overriding concern of our board throughout this unfortunate process has been, as always, the maintenance of program stability for our students,” McAlister said.
“This has been accomplished through the withdrawal of $1.1 million from our reserves.”
In the end, the board passed a $37,711,995 budget for the 2006/07 school year.
“We had already planned a withdrawal from reserves [of $579,510] just to continue the programs we already have in place,” noted Mills.
These programs include the Achievement School project, Student Achievement Teachers, the Aboriginal Leader project, and transportation.
The board agreed to transfer another $534,546 from reserves “to not put further cuts through the system and affect students,” Mills added.
This money will cover 7.5 full-time equivalent education assistants for the “Later Literacy” program, as well as cover shortfalls in funding for the transportation, MISA (Managing Information for Student Achievement), and plant envelopes.
Mills noted the provincial government increased the primary class size reduction grant, but realigned funding in other areas—to the detriment of the local board.
“They took away more than they actually gave back to us,” she explained.
Money for remote and rural schools, as well as for learning opportunities, was moved to other areas.
“We ended up with $400,00 less than what we were operating with before,” Mills remarked.
The declining enrolment grant also changed—an important grant to boards in Northwestern Ontario where population is in decline.
“That was an approximately $600,000 hit to us,” she continued.
Boards used to be granted $200 per pupil to use in local programs. That money has been redirected to teacher salaries.
Transportation continues to be underfunded, Mills noted, with the board expecting a $300,000 deficit for the 2006/07 school year—despite added efficiencies.
The province now is requiring boards across the province to form consortiums to reduce their transportation costs.
“The Rainy River District School Board is already in a consortium with the Northwest Catholic District School Board,” Mills noted.
“I feel we are as efficient as any board in the province, if not more so, in our consortium,” Belluz said.
“You really were presented with a challenge. You’ve done a great job in not impacting on the students,” Atikokan trustee Judy Eluik said to Mills and her team.
“I’m ticked off with the government and how they did this,” she added. “The northern boards are the ones who are suffering from it.”
According to a board press release, only 12 boards in Ontario saw decreased operating revenue based on ministry funding projections. All 12 boards were in the north.
When the ministry announced the funding projections for 2006/07 back in June, the northern boards joined together to “analyze the rationale behind the funding reductions,” the board said.
“We continue to discuss this issue with the ministry in the hopes that we can sustain the longer term future for our students,” McAlister remarked.
The public board will hold its first regular meeting of the new school year next Tuesday (Sept. 5) at 7 p.m. at Robert Moore School.
(Fort Frances Times)