Wednesday April 20, 2022 | LANGFORD, BC
by Mary P Brooke | Island Social Trends
The big pressures for Sooke School District SD62 in their 2022-2023 budget are no surprise: dealing with rapid growth of the local student population, playing catch-up with available classroom space, and the health and safety aspects of the continuing pandemic and the overall stressors that challenge student well-being.
The SD62 board and senior staff held an Education Committee of the Whole (ECOW) meeting on April 19 (online last night), livestreamed for the public.
Political pressures include attention to the imbalance of growth at the two ends of the large geographical footprint of the school district: Langford and Colwood in the west shore where housing development is seemingly unending (that’s in the Belmont Zone of SD62), and the Sooke area where housing growth is active but not nearly at the same pace (that’s in the Milne’s Landing Zone of SD62). School trustee elections are coming up in October 2022, so it matters.
At least 445 new students are expected in September 2022, pushing the SD62 student population past 12,100 (up from about 11,600 this year). However, it could be even higher. Last year about 400 more students were in the projection and over 800 showed up. Closer communications with the municipalities in which the schools are located (i.e. Langford, Colwood and Sooke) was mentioned last night as needed.
Associate Superintendent Paul Block explained that most of the 2022-2023 student growth is expected from the west shore area (Langford and Colwood) where another six months of housing construction lies ahead before final student intake is calculated at September 30, while the forecast is “not huge growth” in Sooke.
Budget presentation style & transparency:
SD62 Secretary-Treasurer Harold Cull, now 10 years in that role, has once again produced a masterful series of presentations over the past few months about the budget. The process is transparent, and the amount of detail explained in public (at livestreamed committee and board meetings) is relatively comprehensive for a broad audience. That includes last night’s ECOW meeting, that ran almost 2.5 hours, with lots of detailed discussion by trustees and stakeholders (including leadership from the Sooke Teachers Association, CUPE, and the SPEAC parent PAC).
SD62 board chair Ravi Parmar told Island Social Trends yesterday that Sooke School District’s budget process is highly transparent, something he’s quite proud of, including that partners (principals, teachers, CUPE, etc) “helped develop the budget”.
Parmar emphasizes that there are no ‘cutbacks’, per se, in the effort to deal with a $3,085,000 shortfall. It’s more a matter of adjusting things and being creative (there won’t be layoffs; for example, staff positions might be spread across two roles or departments as required) as well as drawing upon the existing reserve (to some extent). He noted how SD62 schools share resources with the City of Langford (as in use of artificial-turf fields and parking lots), as a way to economize on behalf of the community.
Speaking with Island Social Trends ahead of the ECOW meeting, Parmar said he will “continue to listen and learn through the continued input and discussions from all parties regarding the budget before making any decisions”. Though in that context, it was interesting that he tried to generate trustee interest at the end of the ECOW meeting for a recommendation on the budget as presented, even though stakeholder and public input is likely to continue, and at least one trustee mentioned her intention to bring a motion to the board about the budget.
Handling the shortfall:
Growth absorbs the majority of the cost pressures, Cull explained at the ECOW meeting last night; the total amount of per-pupil funding of course increases with a higher student (full-time-equivalent or FTE) enrollment count.
But Cull pointed out that growth is forcing the operational budget to be outpaced. The evening’s budget review would “not find savings” but “will confirm the ‘right spend’ in the most efficient ways”. That could be through changes (not cuts). “We’ll have to continue to find solutions and continue to make changes,” he told the trustees and senior staff in the room, and those listening remotely.
He noted the input that the budget process had already received from partners, including the need for additional classroom supports, maintaining early learning intervention, being aware of the health and safety of students and staff (both mental and physical), and providing additional hours where the issue of pay equity is a concern.
The $3.085 million shortfall is proposed — as presented in last night’s presentation — to be covered by:
- Structural proposals: $2.122 million (70%) “to solve the shortfall now”; and
- Financial reserve: $0.963 million (30%) “to address short term challenges and buy time for the second phase of program review”.
That use of reserves is in the ‘conservative’ range. Last week Island Social Trends reported that about one-third of SD62 ‘leadership’ (senior staff and stakeholders including principals and vice-principals, teachers, CUPE staff, parent group, and others) were leaning toward buffering these impacts by dipping into reserves, according to a straw poll taken by Cull. But he does not prefer that, referring to dipping into reserves as ‘the Vegas approach’, as discussed at the Resources Committee meeting on April 12.
In the past few years the SD62 board decided on maintaining a two percent reserve, for use in case of emergencies and unforeseen circumstances. It remains open to interpretation, then, as to what constitutes enough pressure as to when reserves would be used.
Risks in the budget:
At last night’s ECOW meeting, Cull itemized the risks (unknown impacts) for the 2022-2023 budget as being:
- enrollment growth (pressure on classroom availability, teacher salary requirements, etc)
- inflation (“which continues to be a challenge for us” as in impacting all areas of expenditure)
- pandemic costs (there could be a sixth, seventh or eight wave, with additional health and safety expenditures required)
- salary differential (per-pupil funding level, other government funding)
- capital cost share requirements (between SD62 and the Ministry of Education, as another capital plan will be submitted for the coming year)
Bus service to be maintained, but not expand:
Cull did gently make clear that the school bus transportation services provided by SD62 will be “maintained”, but not expanded. Bussing is a discretionary service under the BC School Act, with SD62 not obliged to provide it.
But as the schools in the district are spread out, and as many working parents rely on the buses for getting their kids to school, SD62 rarely gets serious about not providing bussing. The budget for 2022-2023 is the closest they’ve come to putting a lid on growth of the bus system.
SD62 hopes to achieve that by encouraging the use of ‘safe routes to school’ (walking, cycling, rolling), but the stabbing on a walking trail near Journey Middle School in Sooke last week could make some parents think twice about not having the bus option available for their children.
As well, students who are kept out of the bus system (being deemed within walkable distance and having access to a ‘safe route’) would be relying on parents or others to drive them to school in inclement weather or other circumstances where walking and cycling are not possible(such as a foot in a cast, bicycle under repair, etc).
Last year a $25 ‘safety fee’ was instituted for families submitting registration into the bus system for their child(ren), with an additional $100 late fee. As SD62 Trustee Bob Phillips said at last night’s ECOW meeting, that fund could be dipped into to help cover any shortfall in the bus transportation operating budget. Cull said that three new buses are coming onstream this fall; two electric buses will take a while longer to come.
New schools & insufficient funding formula:
The 2022-2023 budget shortfall has been summarized by Secretary-Treasurer Cull for a few weeks now as largely due to:
- Incremental costs to open Pexsisen Elementary and Centre Mountain Lellum Middle School (in the Westhills area of Langford); and
- Inflationary pressures not supported by the funding formula (e.g. salaries for principals and vice-principals, custodial staff, office staff).
The two new schools have been in the works for a few years already; the designs were unveiled in March 2020. Yesterday Parmar told Island Social Trends that the Ministry of Education per-pupil funding formula doesn’t allow room for the additional operating costs that come with opening new schools in a growing school district. He notes that when two high schools were added in 2015, only one of the schools (Royal Bay Secondary) could be furnished with new equipment, while the other (Belmont so-called 2.0) had to replace various of equipment at SD62’s own cost. Royal Bay Secondary was full when it opened, and required further expansion with 500 more seats in recent years.
Inflation during the pandemic economic recovery phase (compounded by the global economic impacts of the war in Ukraine) will push up the cost of just about everything in terms of service delivery (e.g. classroom supplies), facility management (heat, electricity, cleaning supplies, etc.) and in terms of wages that coming into another negotiation phase. Inflation was last reported in Canada as 5,7%, against which the Bank of Canada promptly doubled their base interest rate from 0.5% to 1.0% on April 13 while promising to bring further increases in fast order over the next year or so.
Additional revenue sources:
School districts have, for years, looked for other ways to increase their revenues to supplement the per-pupil funding model. SD62 has primarily relied on revenues from International Student tuition and facility rentals in that regard. Both of those funding sources fell off the rails for over two years during the COVID pandemic (part of 2019-2020, all of 2020-2021, and most of this current 2021-2022 year).
At last night’s ECOW meeting, Superintendent Scott Stinson did mentioned that the International Students department is “appropriately staffed for the number of students coming”. It was noted as risky to take staff out of that department, as student numbers (presently at 250) are expected to possibly rebound toward 280 next year.
Secretary-Treasurer Cull noted it was pretty much overdue to increase rental rates for use of SD62 facilities (e.g. sports fields, classrooms for third-party use in the evenings). Those rates are going up in the proposed 2022-2023 budget.
Maintaining class sizes:
Superintendent Stinson said that the school district “doesn’t want to exceed class size limits”. He notes that Pexsisen Elementary in Langford will open up more classroom space “so that we didn’t have to exceed class size legislation”.
That was in the context of replying to Sooke Teachers Association (STA) President Jennifer Anderson last night who raised class-size concerns.
The bulk of the SD62 student population will be in middle (Grades 6 to 8) and secondary (Grades 9 to 12) schools this coming year, more so than elementary.
Trustee Margot Swinburnson expressed concern about population growth in the Sooke area schools. Associate Superintendent Stephanie Hedley-Smith said there is still space at Sooke Elementary but that the other (two) elementary schools are full. She said that Journey Middle School and Edward Milne Community School (secondary school) have space.
STA President Jennifer Anderson said that teachers are burnt out, and that “she can’t emphasize that enough”. She said that seven classrooms were “over limit” yesterday.
Anderson re-emphasized to the SD62 trustees and executive “to put as much as you can into early learning”.
She noted that the school population growth is not going to abate, given the continual construction of residential buildings in Langford and Colwood. New high-density condo and apartment towers are underway in downtown Langford, including with 2-bedroom units intended to accommodate small families.
Parents in recent weeks have expressed concerns about the full availability of school bus services. In recent weeks it was clarified by SD62 that rural routes and routes for the elementary schools would be held in priority.
As well, last night, SPEAC rep Melissa DaSilva sought clarification that band music classes would still be offered to Grade 6 students in the middle schools. SD62 said yes. Stinson said the school district is aiming to maintain consistency across all the middle schools in terms of offering music instruction.
During the ECOW last night, it was explained in response to a question by Trustee Wendy Hobbs that the increase in trustee salaries is covered, even though the line item does not show as increased. In January a salary increase for SD62 trustees was approved by the board, effective July 1, 2022.
The three Milne’s Landing Zone trustees had questions:
- Trustee Bob Phillips said he is in favour of SD62 having a reserve but notes it is “not prescribed” by the Ministry of Education. He described the reserve as ‘structural’ within the budget now. Until a few years ago there was no reserve on a regular or strategic basis.
- Trustee Margot Swinburnson spoke up about the availability of a school band program starting at Grade 6. She said that’s important if they want see “feasible high school program”.
- Trustee Allison Watson asked if there would be an increase in the reserve.
From among the four Belmont Zone trustees:
- Board Chair Ravi Parmar tried to get a ‘recommendation’ from trustees at the meeting last night, after all the discussion was done. But there is still time ahead of the April 26 board meeting to receive more input.
- Board Vice-Chair Bob Beckett attended the meeting remotely. He had one comment about the equity between in-class music programming and the accessibility (cost-wise) of Academy programs. Superintendent Stinson noted that funding support is available as required for students who wish to attend academies but whose families are unable to afford that.
- Trustee Wendy Hobbs had several questions throughout the evening. She noted that ‘growth reports’ from staff at the three growing municipalities hadn’t been ‘seen in years’.
- Trustee Dianna Seaton had no questions or comments at the ECOW meeting.
Public input coming up on SD62 budget 2022-2023 (April 12, 2022)
Passive public input process on three years of SD62 calendars (March 17, 2022)
SD62 embraces Boulder House Langford to support Climbing Academy (February 22, 2022)
SD62 requires COVID vaccination proof from current employees (January 31, 2022)
SD62 trustees vote themselves a pay increase (January 26, 2022)
SD62 news archive by Island Social Trends
===== ABOUT THE WRITER:
Island Social Trends Editor Mary P Brooke, B.Sc., Cert PR, has been covering SD62 news at the board and committee level since 2014, through West Shore Voice News and since 2020 here at Island Social Trends.
She is the mother of four now-grown children who over the years attended schools in SD61, SD62 and SD72.
The Island Social Trends Journalism Scholarship is open to graduating students of SD62 each graduation season.