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Final vote ends School District 43 budget deliberations

Coquitlam school district concluded its budget deliberations Tuesday night, passing a balanced budget with about $13.4 million in cuts, but it wasn
Coquitlam school district concluded its budget deliberations Tuesday night, passing a balanced budget with about $13.4 million in cuts, but it wasn't unanimous.
— image credit: FILE PHOTO

School District 43 trustees managed to save five teaching jobs by cutting a contingency fund but they couldn't unanimously agree on a final operating budget for 2014/'15.

Still, a majority (six of nine) trustees approved the budget Tuesday night, setting the stage for cost cutting and service reorganization as the district tries to bring its spending in line with anticipated government funding.

DEVASTATING BUDGET

Calling the budget "devastating" and one of the most difficult ones passed in years, trustees approved $267.6 million in operating expenses, about $7 million less than what the district expects to spend this year on teachers, support staff, administration and other costs according to draft figures presented. The total budget, however, was $301.9 million including special purpose funds, capital and $2.5 million to repay part of last year's $10 million deficit.

Three trustees, Brian Robinson of Coquitlam, Keith Watkins, a Port Moody trustee and John Keryluk, from Port Coquitlam, all opposed the budget, citing various concerns, including the addition of a $500,000 contingency fund for emergencies, which was pared down from $900,000 to save jobs mostly in early learning areas.

Calling the contingency fund a "philosophical change" from previous years, trustee Watkins said he couldn't support the budget. Trustees Robinson and Keryluk expressed similar concerns and frustration at what they said was government downloading that was at the heart of the district's financial troubles.

Keryluk also said it was "wrong" to cut 38 FTE teacher librarian positions, which while libraries will still be kept open, will have the affect of reducing programs for children.

However, several of the trustees said if they didn't pass a balanced budget, they would be breaking the law, leaving the process open to take over by government officials, who would be charged with making decisions without local knowledge.

"I don't want someone to come in and do it for us," Coquitlam trustee Gail Alty said.

YOUTH WORKERS

For Coquitlam trustee Diane Sowden, it was cuts to youth workers that caused her concern and she tried to convince her colleagues to add them to the budget, but she withdrew her motion, saying she didn't want to pit jobs against jobs.

What trustees did manage to claw back, by reducing a contingency fund by $400,000, was five FTEs, however, the jobs that will be saved include two teachers who deal with students with learning disabilities, 1.2 FTE teachers for class size and composition and 1.8 FTE positions for a part time early learning coordinator, a part time elementary gifted program teacher and a part-time speech and language pathologist.

Anmore trustee Holly Butterfield, who first proposed the contingency clawback to save jobs, said keeping teachers who work with special needs was critical for ensuring students get through school and graduate with their peers.

Gifted children, children with speech and language and behaviour issues would be helped by the change, she said. "It's not an easy way through school and they need some support," Butterfield said.

The contingency fund was a contentious item throughout the budget process and managed to make it through most of the budget meetings on votes because it was a recommendation from a forensic audit into the district finances. But in the end, trustees unanimously agreed to reduce the sum and put the money into saving jobs.

Trustees Robinson and Watkins were upset the decision to reduce — or even completely eliminate — the fund for emergencies wasn't made sooner.

However, other trustees said they were convinced by all the comments and emails they received to rescind an earlier motion to approve the contingency but at a lesser amount.

"What we did is go through the process and we listened to what people were telling us," Melissa Hyndes, board chair and Port Moody trustee, told The News.

Coquitlam Teachers' Association president Charley King kept his comments to a minimum on the passage of the budget and asked trustees to go to Victoria with teachers and lobby for more funding, something Hyndes agreed to.

Hyndes also called on parents to join a rally in front of Port Moody-Coquitlam MLA Linda Reimer's office on Friday. A letter containing information about the rally organized by a new group called Parents4BC is expected to go home with students this week.

Several speakers challenged the board's decision on the budget and CUPE 561 president Dave Ginter expressed concern about a letter he received Tuesday calling for job cuts for staff working in secondary cafeterias.

Ginter asked why the information came so late in the process but was told a 14% salary reduction in cafeteria staffing had been raised at earlier meetings, although the details hadn't been spelled out.

dstrandberg@tricitynews.com

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