New West school board won't lobby province for funding certainty - yet

Trustee Danielle Connelly wanted the board to advocate to Education Minister Rob Fleming for assurance on the school district's operating grants for 2020/21, but her motion didn't get past the committee table.

One New Westminster school trustee’s attempt to push the province for certainty on funding for this school year didn’t get past the committee table.

At the school board’s operations committee meeting held Sept. 15 via Webex, trustee Danielle Connelly brought forward a motion to advocate to Minister of Education Rob Fleming for certainty on school district operating grants for 2020/21.

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Connelly raised the concern that having students opt out of regular in-class learning and into online, distributed learning programs stands to affect the school district’s bottom line. She’s concerned that provincial funding, which is handed out on a per-student basis, could be affected to the tune of $1,500 per student for those who have opted out of in-class instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A report presented to the committee shows 608 students registered for online learning this school year, though those numbers are still somewhat fluid.

A budget presentation from secretary-treasurer Bettina Ketcham warned trustees of the potential for funding decreases with the departure of some students from regular in-class learning.

“There could be some funding shortfalls, although the district has taken steps to mitigate that, between distributed learning and our bricks-and-mortar funding,” Ketcham said.

Connelly told her fellow trustees the district is facing “a lot of uncertainty” over operating grants this school year.

Connelly – the lone trustee elected as a member of the New West Progressives - presented a motion recommending that trustees ask Fleming to commit “that no school district in British Columbia will incur a negative impact on their operating grants this school year, 2020/21, regardless of how students in each district opt to have their education delivered.”

She found support from trustee Maya Russell.

But the remainder of the New Westminster and District Labour Council-endorsed majority voted against the motion.

Trustee Anita Ansari suggested it was too early to take the step of sending a letter to Fleming.

“I appreciate that we are discussing how best to deal with the changes that we have experienced to allow our students to come to school in a way that works for their families during a pandemic,” she said. “I’m hesitant to be sending out advocacy letters before we have a really solid financial picture. … I don’t want us to look misinformed and reacting too early to changing conditions.”

Ansari said the school district will have more clarity on operating grants after it has its final enrolment counts for the year by Sept. 30.

“I’m also hesitant to have letters that ask a government that’s already under pressure for more support,” she said, adding it’s a tough time to be asking for “money that I don’t know if they have or not, under such deficit conditions that everyone is experiencing.”

But Connelly said the motion isn’t asking the province for extra money; it’s simply asking the government to commit to the amount already budgeted by the school district in the spring.

“It’s certainly not asking for more,” she said. “It’s asking for consistency and some dependency, stability as we’re going forward in the current climate.”

Superintendent Karim Hachlaf told trustees the school district is working to mitigate the potential financial impact of the transfer of students into distributed learning or home schooling by keeping students connected to their regular school through 2020/21.

He acknowledged there will be some additional costs with staffing for the new alternative options but said those costs will not hit the district’s operational bottom line, thanks to the extra federal funding announced to help school districts deal with COVID-19.

“We’re confident we’ll be able to use some of the federal funds to apply to those additional costs, so that won’t come at a negative financial consequence to the school district,” he said.

The rest of the labour-endorsed trustees – Dee Beattie, Gurveen Dhaliwal and Mark Gifford – said Connelly’s motion is one the trustees can revisit after its final enrolment numbers are confirmed at the end of September.

 “I would be happy to consider it at a later date,” Gifford said.

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