A last-ditch union effort to salvage clerical positions in the New Westminster school district fell short as trustees voted in favour of a streamlined budget for 2020/21.
The school board passed third reading of the budget at its May 26 meeting, held online via Webex, approving a budget totalling nearly $82.8 million for the coming school year. The budget details an operating shortfall of $1.38 million in 2020/21, to be funded from the district’s accumulated surplus reserves.
The approved budget calls for a total accumulated surplus balance of $1.18 million by the end of 2020/21 – below the $2-million level the district considers to be healthy, but far higher than the $417,000 that was originally presented to trustees in April.
The district made up that difference with some “operational efficiencies” that were presented to the board on May 12, including reductions to administration and changes to clerical hours at schools.
Marcel Marsolais, president of CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) Local 409, which represents support staff in the school district, appeared in front of the board to ask them to reconsider the clerical reductions.
“It was presented as ‘human resources has found some efficiencies.’ We don’t see it that way. We see it as somewhat disturbing in a number of areas,” he said.
Marsolais cited some “precarious” 10-hour-per-week secretarial positions that had been cut, a records management position at the district office and a reduction in administrative hours at the Hume Park Home Learners program from 35 to 20 hours per week as among the areas of concern.
He told trustees that, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the changes facing the way schools have to operate, now is not the time to be reducing support staff.
“We all appreciate a surplus, and we know it’s good business to have a surplus of $2 million, but at this time I don’t see that being a reasonable target when we’re going through what we’re going through,” he told trustees. “We need to instill a sense of confidence in our system, and we can’t do that by reducing the people that assist our administrative staff.”
Marsolais suggested that, rather than find savings through staff cuts, the district instead look at the $1 million it had set aside for new fixings and furniture for the replacement New Westminster Secondary School.
“That would be a way to recover some of those savings that the board is looking for,” he said.
Trustee Mark Gifford suggested to the board that, given the somewhat improved picture on the school district’s accumulated surplus, trustees might consider amending the budget to include $150,000 for support staff, to be deployed on an as-needed basis in the new school year.
Gifford said he’s glad the school district is in a healthy budget position, despite the challenges.
“This is why we have accumulated reserves. If there’s been a rainy day in the last eight years in this district for us to try to address and try to support, this is it,” he said. “And I’m glad we’re in a better financial position than we thought we were a month ago. I know we’re not out of the woods yet, but I just want to make sure we’re comfortable and supporting staff.”
But his suggestion for extra funding didn’t find any takers.
Trustee Gurveen Dhaliwal pointed out it’s a “very tough” budget year for the district. Instead of making new budget decisions now, she suggested trustees wait until September, when there’s more clarity around the COVID-19 situation and how it may affect district programs.
Superintendent Karim Hachlaf recommended trustees continue with the cautious approach. He said school district staff “wholeheartedly support” the board’s commitment to fiscal responsibility and its direction to provide funding, as available, to help the district achieve the priorities in the strategic plan it adopted in 2019.
“You can rest assured, as soon as we get more finality around the COVID-19 financial impacts, if there are opportunities for us to look at staffing and otherwise to support the strategic plan further within the next school year, we will bring that back to the board for further discussion,” he said.
School board chair Anita Ansari added her voice to the call for caution, pointing out the school district doesn’t yet know how the COVID-19 situation will really affect the coming school year.
“The best we can do is put forward as good a budget as we know, and revisit it over and over again to make sure that we are providing support in the right places as we go through unprecedented times,” she said.
In the end, trustees unanimously approved third reading of the budget. It must now be submitted to the Ministry of Education by June 30.