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New Westminster school district budget meeting raises more questions than answers

The New Westminster school district held a public budget information meeting on Tuesday night, but many left the meeting still scratching their heads over how the district could have missed a $2.8 million shortfall.

The New Westminster school district held a public budget information meeting on Tuesday night, but many left the meeting still scratching their heads over how the district could have missed a $2.8 million shortfall.

The district is dealing with a hefty "surprise" deficit from last year, which only came to light after the board of education passed what trustees thought was a balanced budget in June. Tuesday night's meeting was held as a way for the district to discuss the budget and seek input on how to deal with it.

Local resident Murielle Douglas, who is a principal in Surrey, was among the roughly 50 people who attended the meeting and had more questions than answers after the budget overview.

"I think there is some really well-intentioned people here, and I think we have some really good systems in place, but the problem with the meeting is we don't know what went wrong, so we can't give advice really on how to fix or resolve the problem, and we don't know if the same problem is repeating itself as we speak," she said. "It was interesting to come and find out that they're not ready to tell us yet, so we really don't know where it sits. There are some questions that need to be answered."

A number of concerned parents attended the meeting, including school district critics Wendy Harris, Kal Randhawa, Lisa Chao and Paul Johansen.

The evening featured a presentation from secretary treasurer Brian Sommerfeldt on some of the factors that caused the deficit, including lower-than-expected enrolment, additional staffing, maintenance costs and the flow of financial information from the schools to the administration.

Trustee Jonina Campbell asked Sommerfeldt to provide a financial breakdown of the deficit figures.

Sommerfeldt initially said he didn't have the figures with him and he wasn't able to recall them off the top of his head, but then trustee MaryAnn Mortensen interjected saying the lower enrolment caused about a $405,000 shortfall, additional staffing costs about $530,000, and maintenance and operations costs went over by $375,000. The district also has a leftover deficit of $521,000 from the 2008/09 school year. The remaining shortfall figures were not provided.

"Nine hundred and fifty seven thousand dollars is unexplained," Mortensen said during Sommerfeldt's presentation. The remainder of the deficit is "yet to be determined," she said.

"The real issue here is actual expenditures versus actual costs," district parent advisory council chair Rob Peregoodoff called out from the crowd. "Is that not a fair statement?"

"Yes," Sommerfeldt said.

In his presentation, Sommerfeldt compared costs in New Westminster school district to other similar sized districts.

One new area that Sommerfeldt discussed was the cost of benefits for teachers in the district doing job sharing and part-time assignments. Those teachers are still paid full benefits, so if two teachers share one teaching job, they both get 100 per cent of their benefits.

"The number of job shares is growing," Sommerfeldt told The Record after his presentation. "I don't know what the old number was, but currently we have 23 to 25 per cent of teachers in job shares."

Asked how it compares to previous years, Sommerfeldt said, "It would take a while to dig up that number," though it would be difficult to determine because of the system.

Douglas said job-sharing is routine and there is no cap on the number of teachers who can job-share, according to the teachers' collective agreement. She occasionally deals with job-share requests from teachers at her school.

"They bargained it ... it doesn't get settled at my office, it gets settled at the bargaining table, so I'll respect that," she said.

New Westminster Teachers' Union president Grant Osborne said he isn't aware of the number of job-shares spiking.

"It should be highly predictable year-by-year," he said. "This is not a new development."

Part-time teachers are eligible for full benefits, Osborne said.

The teachers' contract says teachers have the right to reduce their assignment, Osborne said.

"Then it's either done through job share ... or it's put out to tender in terms of a posting," he said.

There is a process of notifying the school and every year they would have to confirm whether they want to keep the part-time hours, he said.

"When they say that that's higher than average, I would want to look at other districts as well. From my understanding, it's pretty standard practice, so when I hear that it's a higher cost, I haven't seen any numbers to bear that out," he said.

The district is also considering whether to hire a consultant to report on the reasons for the deficit and provide recommendations on how to deal with it.