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SD62 to protect mental health & arts amidst 2021-2022 budget cuts

"Kids will be falling apart after being in a pandemic." ~ high school teacher defends budget for mental health initiatives.

Wednesday April 14, 2021 | LANGFORD, bC

ANALYSIS | by Mary P Brooke, B.Sc., Editor | Island Social Trends

Like every school district’s board of education in BC, the SD62 (Sooke School District) board and staff are busy preparing a budget for the coming academic school year. Budgets must balance to zero, but some school districts have taken to including reserves in their budgets in recent years.

SD62 Secretary-Treasurer Harold Cull said the reserve that’s been built up over the last couple of years in the SD62 budget (presently just over $2.6 million) has been dipped into during the pandemic over the past year.

Scott Stinson, SD62, Superintendent
SD62 Superintendent Scott Stinson during the virtual online meeting of the SD62 Resources Committee on April 13, 2021.

Superintendent Scott Stinson put it this way: “The reserve is a rainy day fund, and it’s been raining.” Budget pressures have evolved by dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic impacts and needs in the 27 schools and broader administrative system that SD62 delivers in public education to families in the west shore (broadly covering Langford, Colwood, Sooke, Highlands, East Sooke, parts of View Royal, and in Juan de Fuca out to Port Renfrew).

The 2020-2021 budget has been impacted in unexpected ways by the enormous pressures of dealing with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on students, teachers, support staff, administrative systems, IT support, and more. But having a reserve could soften the blow for next year.

In this academic year (2020-2021) there were additional provincial funds received from the BC government ahead of September 2020 that were targeted at enhanced cleaning supplies and protocol delivery, and the custodial staff to execute that. And there was the unusual but welcome federal funding support (education is not under federal jurisdiction) in this academic year that has been coloured so deeply by COVID; the federal dollars came without strings attached — spending could be undertaken as each school district saw its need to be. In SD62 much of that was used to help out with classroom impacts including hiring related to splitting up classes into smaller size cohorts.

Despite all that additional support, the 2020-2021 academic year took a budget hit. As such, SD62 will need to cut $556,000 from the expenditures side of the operating budget for this coming September in order to stabilize the 2021-2022 academic year.

Targeting the reserve:

Last night at the three-hour SD62 Resources Committee meeting, SD62 Board Chair Ravi Parmar (who doesn’t actually sit on the committee but observes and often gets air time from committee chair Bob Beckett), said that the SD62 budget reserve is the right place to find funds. That prevents having to dig too deep into operations and programs that are naturally expected by teachers and students.

budget, reserve, SD62
The reserve is presently $2,602,000 and according to budget projections there needs to be about 773,000 drawn against that in order to stabilize the 2021-2022 budget. That would leave a reserve of $1,829,000 going forward in presumably better times beyond 2021 (that’s the equivalent of about 1.5% of the current year operating budget — so not a lot of wiggle room if further unexpected challenges come up).

Parmar doesn’t want to see cuts to things like music programs and library supports, in making a political comment that took a swipe at neighbouring Greater Victoria SD61 whose board has shocked the education community throughout BC with their going-backward stance. SD61 with its massive budget (including a reserve in “double-digit millions”, says Parmar) proposes — among other things — to cut into budgets for creative aspects of curriculum (music and library supports, of note) as a way of dealing with their overall looming budget challenges for 2021-2022. All of this because of COVID pandemic impacts of course. This is an indicator that pandemic impacts may well go on for years.

Ravi Parmar, SD62 chair, August 25 2020
File photo: SD62 Board Chair Ravi Parmar, during an Education Policy Committee meeting on August 25, 2020.

Cutting in the creative and literary aspects of school life effectively reflects an attitude of depreciating the value of those components of education. That’s a reality that schools around the entire province endured during the BC Liberal government years — that’s why SD61’s approach for 2021-2022 has been so shocking — the wounds should still be raw for all the families and students whose lives were indelibly impacted in the late 1990s to mid-2000s.

Complexities grappled with in SD62:

SD62 has worked hard for the last several years to provide a broad base of educational opportunities to their now over 11,000 students. The degree of their attention to doing things in what might be called ‘the west-shore/Sooke way’ has become so embedded in the ethos of the school district and their schools that if SD62 made any other choice than to support enriching aspects of school life it would be seen as entirely out of synch with their stated and evident values.

Parents and students in SD62 can feel proud of the instinctive fight that SD62 trustees are likely to mount in protecting the complexity of the deeper aspects of school life. But the decisions will be tough.

Belt-tightening to June 2021:

Seeing next year’s budget pressures on the horizon, Secretary-Treasurer Cull suggested last night that all non-essential expenditures might be withheld to the end of this academic fiscal year. It’s his way of holding onto as much money in the spending pot as possible, to keep next year’s shortfall as contained as possible.

Harold Cull, SD62
SD62 Secretary-Treasurer Harold Cull at the April 13, 2021 Resources Committee meeting, taking the lead on some tough budget choices for 2021-2022.

Any potential savings would be one-time and not structural into future budget years, he clarified.

Where to cut?

The philosophical bent of SD62 to acknowledge the full person (including their oft-stated emphasis on social-emotional learning coupled with a wide range of new courses and interactive programs) makes it tough to know where to cut dollars in a financial crisis. As SD62 has wisely put aside an operational reserve in recent years, the level of crisis is not dire, but it is clearly serious. The level of debate and apparently the degree of “public input” to the budget is evidence of that.

In last night’s lengthy meeting, Cull first outlined how a $556,000 shortfall was determined within in the proposed 2021-2022 operating budget. Revenues have been down this year due to fewer International Students (who pay tuition into the public education system in BC) and a significant drop in facility rentals (to community groups, sports teams and other educational ventures). Expenditures are up, largely around the pandemic (more hiring, IT delivery, enhanced cleaning, etc.). An interesting aspect of seeing less drain on the budget was in teachers not using as many health benefits during the pandemic (such as going to fewer appointments for dental or massage around COVID exposure fears).

The budget for 2021-2022 includes an expectation of more students in SD62 (a trend of seeing up to 400 new students per year, year-over-year since around 2011, due to housing growth in the west shore). This means more dollars come in to SD62 from the provincial government (based on per-pupil funding), but there are also more concomitant expenditures with more teachers being needed (some of them in specialty arrears like French Immersion) and resources for expanded classroom footprints.

Counting on the pandemic easing off:

Dr Bonnie Henry
On April 12, 2021 Dr Bonnie Henry declared that BC is in the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cull did present his numbers based on the assumption that the “tail end of the pandemic” is near. However, there are no guarantees of that, as Dr Bonnie Henry’s declaration of BC being in a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic will attest.

Emerging themes – putting money where the intentions are:

Emerging themes for budget priorities in 2021-2022 were outlined as:

  • Mental Health/Wellness
  • Early Learning & Intervention
  • Safe & Healthy Learning Environments
  • Resources, Supplies & Equipment

In addition to the expertise of executive administration and community attention by way of trustees, contributors to the priorities list were members of the Sooke Teachers Association, CUPE 459 (support staff), and SPEAC (Sooke Parents’ Education Advisory Committee).

budget priorities, SD62
Emerging Themes during SD62 budget discussions for 2021-2022. [April 13, 2021]

Mental health approach:

In response to a specific point in committee discussion, Secretary-Treasurer Cull said there could be more creative ways to support mental health needs (students, teachers and support staff) than simply topping up the number of professional counselors. That was in followup to a powerful discussion at a previous meeting about getting more granular with what really works — like Professional Development Day training for teachers so they’re equipped for interfacing with traumatized students, or group-type and non-traditional supports for students.

This would be quite a shift, if it comes to pass. As one committee member said at last night’s meeting, dealing with kids’ trauma is not always best handled by people who “have a set of skills” from a clinical perspective (implying that it’s more authentic to meet kids where they are).

students, teachers, masks, COVID, computers
The classroom during the COVID pandemic has additional emotional and social stresses.

As well, the clinical counselling approach often doesn’t function with any knowledge of the family scenario in which the student dwells. Sometimes all it takes is a kind word, a discussion with peers, or interesting and modern activities in order to effectively deal with the emotional impacts of stressful situations like the pandemic. These sorts of approaches can stave off distress at the outset before things fester to a point where clinical (psychology-based and sometimes medically-involved) counselling takes place.

With his financial pen on the trigger, Cull opened this up for further debate with this statement: “Is counselling where we should spend money to support mental health? It sounds right, but I’m not sure.”

As to the level of need in the area of mental health, high school math teacher Ed Berlando (who has taught for over 25 years, presently at Edward Milne Community School/EMCS in Sooke) said last night: “Kids will be falling apart after being in a pandemic.” There will be a lot of students needing mental wellness support after the pandemic has been grappled with.

Ed Berlando, EMCS
High school math teacher Ed Berlando at the April 13, 2021 SD62 Resources Committee meeting.

The impacts of lost contact with friends and teachers, lack of peer support in the classroom environment, having to wear a mask all day and all the frustrations (physical and social) that go with that are just some of the things impacting youth in schools in the past year. For students in their senior high school years there could be impacts on courses required for graduation, and on the social side of things losing out on the traditional graduation season and ceremony.

Yesterday Premier John Horgan mentioned in his media session about consoling the graduating class at EMCS in Sooke last year that they would essentially wear a badge of honour for being the only pandemic-graduating class in the last 100 years. But now 2021 presents the same remarkable status, Horgan said. Losing out on one’s graduation ‘moment’ can have a lifelong impact for many students. As well, getting started in that first job or perhaps doing their first year of post-secondary remotely without the campus experience, will not be without ripple effects into adult life.

Teachers or specialized principals?

There was an interesting discussion about what must be a point of angst for some teachers, seeing that next year’s budget covers for the salary of another District Principal (a Principal or Vice Principal assigned to coordinate the administration or development of a particular sector of the education profile in the school district).

For example there are already District Principals for International Students, Academies, and Curriculum. Another one is being planned for coordinating a particular focus at Journey Middle School.

Bob Beckett, SD62
SD62 Vice-Chair Bob Beckett chairs the Resources Committee. [April 13, 2021 screenshot]

On this District Principal aspect of the budget, Berlando says maybe there “should be more faces in front of kids rather than talking about the kids”, and “maybe we could do something as radical as that.”

During the meeting, Board Vice-Chair Bob Beckett (chairing the Resources Committee) thanked Berlando for posing questions on very tough issues in a way that opened discussion without overt offence.

Developing the next Strategic Plan:

A staffer has been brought on this year to coordinate the many layers of detail of reworking the SD62 Strategic Plan, which presently is based on a three-year period. In the budget discussions last night it was proposed that perhaps a administrative salary for that work is overdoing it under current budget pressures.

Back in January it was surprising to hear that the work of assembling the next Strategic Plan (for 2021-2024, on the heels of the expiring 2018-2021 Strategic Plan) was handed over to staff. Even Superintendent Stinson articulated that it would be a lost political opportunity for trustees to make their mark in local education on behalf of the community.

Strategic Plan, SD62
A virtual desktop exercise allowed Sd62 Resources Committee members to submit their thoughts on the Learning aspect of the 2021-2022 Strategic Plan. [April 13, 2021]

The SD62 Strategic Plan has three sections: Learning, Engagement and Growth. Those main planks will be carried forward, as explained by Sue Grundy who is presently assembling input on the plan from within the school district. Public input on the Strategic Plan (from the broader community beyond the walls of SD62) — while apparently welcome — has not been well promoted. The deadline is this Friday, April 16.

Margot Swinburnson, SD62
SD62 Trustee Margot Swinburnson during the virtual Resources Committee meeting April 13, 2021.

As long-time Trustee Margot Swinburnson said at last night’s meeting, the Strategic Plan is helpful for new trustees (after an election, in the four-year election cycle) to have a framework or direction to operate by. That implies a political or mission-based bent to the document (all the more reason that trustees should be directly crafting it, not staff). It’s unclear whether trustees (and indirectly and presumably the public who vote for trustees) are well served by a document being now treated like a desktop exercise.

Budget transparency:

A great deal of effort and time has gone into reaching out to stakeholders and even deep into individual schools to explain the budget directions for not only 2021-2022 but also a three-year rolling budget strategy that SD62’s top executive team has been pushing for.

Teachers who’ve participated in the budget information meetings have appreciated the three-year scope, it was reported at last night’s committee meeting. The goal is for classroom support and administrative support, as well as programs and initiatives, to be funded with a longer-term purposeful view.

Cull says there has been a lot of “public input” to the budget process (as distinct from SD62 stakeholder input). But given this news of cuts there is — hopefully, for the sake of students in SD62 — even more opportunity for input in the weeks to come.

Harold Cull carries a huge load. He will be assisted by a new Assistant Secretary-Treasurer starting this fall, if the board approves that in the budget. He explained that the person now departing from the role of Director of Finance (at April month-end) was actually already functioning in “a more financial role” (i.e. contributing to the strategy work of the Secretary-Treasurer level). The new position won’t be filled until July 1, says Cull, as a way of achieving “as much savings as we can”.

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===== ABOUT THE WRITER:

Mary Brooke, editor, West Shore Voice News
Mary P Brooke, Editor and Publisher, Island Social Trends

Within the broader scope of south Vancouver Island news, Island Social Trends Editor Mary P Brooke has been covering the news of SD62 at the board and committee levels since 2014. Her now-grown children attended schools in SD61, SD62 and SD72.

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