School board dipping into reserves to balance budget

The Rainy River District School Board is expected to pass its budget for the 2002-03 school year at a special meeting Wednesday night. But to keep the budget balanced, trustees will withdraw almost $200,000 from reserve funds.
Laura Mills, chief financial officer for the board, said expenditures for salaries, benefits, and transportation costs alone increased by $550,000 last year while the province only has offered an additional $200,000 to address these and other funding concerns.
As a result of the lack of funds, the proposed budget suggests the board spend $668,000 more than the province earmarked to support special education programs and $407,000 more for classroom expenditures.
“That is just trying to maintain current service. It significantly shows that we are not being funded adequately for special education,” Mills noted.
“Transportation in an area such as ours is a very important component of our whole operation, and not to have the proper amount of money to do it properly is an injustice to the people of this district,” board chair Gord McBride stressed Tuesday.
“The province isn’t sending us enough money to adequately run these programs, but the board still feels they are important and that’s why we’re juggling things to overspend in these areas,” he added.
Spending more than earmarked by the province for special education and transportation would leave the board with an expected deficit of $193,836 at the end of the year.
As such, money from both classroom expenditures and working funds reserves is being used to cover this deficit.
“It only leaves about $75,000 left in the working funds reserve,” Mills warned.
“I’m slightly disappointed that we have to take $194,000 out of reserves to meet the needs of the system,” McBride remarked. “The only consolation is that it is that way with most of the boards across the province.”
“Obviously, we’ll have a lower reserve fund, but the real problem is that the province is handing out money to school boards based on a 1997 program of disbursement of funds that probably wasn’t in order or right at that time—and is less right at this particular time,” McBride argued.
“The funding model is not meeting the board’s needs,” agreed Mills. “It continually under-funds plant operations, school secretaries, and transportation.
“The benchmark in the funding formula is not an accurate representation of current costs,” she added.
Both McBride and Mills said all public school boards across the province are in a similar position, forced to run deficits to meet rising costs but, by law, are barred from doing so.
Another concern is that over the next three years, enrolment is expected to decline by 165 students. Enrolment will drop by 44 students for the coming school year.
“[Declining enrolment] continues to be a problem with our board and most northern boards,” McBride noted. “Really, as long as the province continues funding based on enrolment, in the next couple of years it will be an even greater problem as our enrolment declines.”
Mills said boards can adjust costs to deal with declining enrolment by reducing staff, etc., but that it takes time.
“In transportation, even if you have five fewer students on a bus, the bus still has to go down the roads,” she reasoned.
McBride said the school board—and others across the province—were hoping things would be different this year with the new provincial budget announced last week.
“We were looking for quite a bit more money in transportation and special ed., and capital funding. We were disappointed that there wasn’t more money available to education across the province,” he said.
But there could be light at the end of the tunnel, with a provincial task force examining the funding formula which determines how much money school boards receive every year and how they can spend that money.
“The gratifying part is that they are looking at the way they disperse money to school boards and they have a task force looking into it and, hopefully, by next time around, it will be resolved into a better situation,” McBride said.