'An erosion back to the mean' — SD43 superintendent
On Friday, May 2, after School District 43 approved a budget that cut 150 jobs earlier in the week, Tri-City News reporter Diane Strandberg spoke to superintendent Tom Grant about what effect budget-cutting will have on students, and what the priorities were for decision-making. The following is the complete interview.
Q. After the recent deficit-cutting budget, when $13.4 million was taken out (to balance revenue with expenses as required by law) what will parents see in schools next year?
A. That's an interesting question. I think it becomes diluted the closer you get to schools, to classrooms and individual relations with an educator. We're reducing by 150 some-odd employees, divide by 70 schools, you're probably looking, for an elementary school, one less educator and at secondary 3,4,2, depending on size, project etc. From a parental perspective, I'm going to notice that the basics will be looked after. I'm going to have a teacher in a classroom, classrooms will be one child bigger, a little bigger, but it's all those extra ancillary supports that we've been able to hold onto in the district (that) won't always be there to the level people have come to expect.
With a couple fewer teachers, what that will look like is the ones remaining will work harder to do what they can. They always do as part of their orientation. You'll find with fewer principals they'll just go out of their way to make it work. I think this district has a reputation for doing everything it can to find success for kids. I think what we're going to notice is the extras are starting — will start — to erode.
We'll have longer waiting lists for psych testing, we may have longer wait lists for extra help, we may have to look at different ways to support special learners. We may not have the pull-out gifted programs and so that will now be translated to a school level protocol, but there may be less of it, so there will be less and less outside of the classroom such we as parents have gotten used to since I was a boy.
We've gone from the essentials to this wonderful world class system that had all these extra supports built in so now it looks like an erosion back to the mean. I think (CTA 1st vice-president) Chris King said it well: we don't view ourselves as normal as regular, we're used to a higher standard and what hurts more than everything is we can see the possible regression down to that mean.
Q. What were your priorities in setting the budget?
A. The priorities we set in the budget were trying to keep any reduction as far away form the classroom as possible, and to make sure that, from the trustee perspective, that they heard from all the community and we could end up with a sustainable system.
Because obviously, when you look at the last couple of years, we've been spending beyond our means and we've done that with the best of intentions. We wanted more employees working with more kids. So we've tried to ensure most of our cuts were away from the classroom but we weren't able to accomplish that completely. Classes will be bigger and there will be more wait lists and less full supports for others.
We've been able to maintain some things, teachers in the classroom for the most part, SEA (Special Education Assistant) support where required, maybe not to the extent … We're looking at coping and accommodating and trying to be as good as we can..but as good as we can within those parameters.
Q. When I ask about setting priorities about the budget it seemed to me, just as a bystander, that it was services to special needs that took the hit. What assurances can you give us or can you be more specific on the gifted, the speech and language, psycho educational testing, youth services, like youth workers and counsellors, what will be different, how are you changing things?
A. Part of our implementation plan will be to go through each and every one of the topics you've suggested and see if there are efficiencies in the way we do work, if there's different ways to do work. Do we need full assessments for every child on every task or assignment? Do we need full blown assessments just to get accommodations on provincial exams? So we're going to have to assess the way we do work and try to find efficiencies.
That said, you're still gong to notice some decrease in services. Will we have enough, I would venture from everything I've heard in the budget process, probably not, but when you look at special needed taking the hit, most of what we do outside of the classroom are catering to the individual students specifically special needs.
So if you want extra help with gifted, that's outside the regular classroom, the regular teachers find ways, through their strategies, to accommodate the needs of kids but if you want to go beyond what's out there, if you want to look at congregating students with learning difficulties you've got to find ways outside and within the classroom and while every child is a special child, those services were always add ons, extras ancillary to classroom, and that's what hurts the most, you've seen an erosion of not as much of those for special kids.
Q. Why were transportation and cafeterias looked at and ultimately cut?
A. When you try to find efficiencies in a system and you look at the fact that 92% or 93% of our budget is salary, you're got 8% or 9% of your budget that you can actually look at. Transportation is a cost; cafeterias have been subsidized for ever and let me take each of them one at a time.
With transportation, I think the board has said we have a moral obligation to provide transportation for some special needs students but in the time of very very tight budgets, in which just the buses alone is a $1.3 million problem and well over half of that was for students who had to go a long distance to schools, it became something that was seen as either a choice: transportation or more teachers, and they chose at this time to look at transportation.
When you look at subsidies for cafeterias, it's getting more and more difficult to meet the requirements set out by the Canadian Food Guidelines and you have to subsidize cafeterias to meet those guidelines because, I hate to say this, but kids don't always want the soup and salad. So when they can go to other areas to get cheaper fast food, they get food at the corner store, they get Starbucks…
The way all of the cafeterias are run, we provide subsidies. Secondaries we've got find more creative ways to be efficient so we're reducing some hours. We've got to find ways to support because we've got teaching cafeterias that need to be in place, you see the transition from school to work is an important focus, for all of us, so we've got to maintain those for kids who are on apprenticeships, ACE-IT and make the transition and we've got to find ways to make our other cafeterias more efficient so that if they're running and they're efficient and they're open longer, they're magnets for kids. You want to find kids, go to the cafeteria. You want kids to be safe, where do they tell you they go, the cafeteria. And so from a safety perspective and from a curriculum perspective we felt we had to leave them open and find ways to make them more efficient.
Q. Middle schools were more heavily subsidized?
A. Yeah, most kids will bring a sandwich.
Q. Now that the budget has been passed, there were some efforts to be more conservative, what confidence should we have in the district maintaining its finances properly?
A. I think we've zeroed out after two years of reductions. We've got a secretary in place now who is very very good at his job, understands financing and budgets, and comes with a terrific resume and reputation, has worked in federal government and municipal government and is working with us very closely to ensure we maintain standards within budgeted areas and we have reduced our staff to where it's budgeted.
I think if you look at this year alone, we have been very good at budgeting and within the dollars we were given. We may have a slight deficit or a slight surplus at the end of the year, but this year we have governed within the money that we were given.
Next year I presume we will do the same, and that will include the payback of any deficit we have, so we think in September when the audit comes in we'll see we have run the district very well this year and we will do the same next year, it just won't be the Cadillac it was.
Q. I have been watching what other districts are doing and a couple of them I noted, Vancouver, for example, had a bit of a surplus they were able to dip into and in Richmond they have a surplus and they're concerned it will be clawed back to use for building facilities. How is it that they're able to have a surplus?
A. The hard decisions we're making this year…Every budget year this district has made the commitment to teaching and learning and so every dollar they had went into the system. They were so concerned that they budgeted their holdback on an annual basis. Other districts have been much more conservative and have not budgeted the holdback so when it came on an annual basis it was money they could put into a surplus.
It's a percentage of the overall funding formula the ministry maintains at a central level to run emergencies that happen on a systemic perspective to do all sorts of things and, at the end of the year if they don't need it, it's given back to districts. In the past, our proportion has been anywhere from $1.5 (million) to $4.5 (million) depending on what year and this board has always put that into the classroom and taken a risk. Very few other districts took that risk, and that's where they would get their accumulated operating surplus.
If the money comes this year it will be a boon but the rumor is, we were given direction from the ministry staff, that this year it would not be prudent to budget the holdback, there may be some use planned for it.
Q. Are summer programs going to run the same as usual
A. Summer programming will run the same as it has always been because right now we do get funded and we haven't seen reductions there yet. You may find some changes to CE, community education and adult ed, the change around that may be coming so we may be examining that very closely this year to see what parts of our CE are profitable and which require a subsidy so we may have to make some tough decisions around what we can offer and what we can't.
Q. I heard the story on library services and I'm still kind of confused, how you can operate libraries without teacher librarian time. There's some sort of way?
A. Schools have been allocated librarian time as part of the staffing formula so you're at school x and you receive .8 of library time, that in the past, we were able to use that as time for a librarian to work with other teachers to do collaborative projects that would use the librarian's expertise to support that teachers' curricular intentions. In the future going forward, that .8 of a librarian time will be used by allocating prep time. Your school is .8, the librarian will be there and will take your students while you're on prep time and so they will be teaching their own course while the teacher is preparing classes or what ever.
Overall it's a reduction to the school, but we have said the prep time should be covered by the librarian. Now that does result in some other unintended consequences, the school community has to decide, if in the past they used prep time to teach computers and now they're doing libraries, how do they teach technology or how do they teach music and so it is a reduction overall but our intention was to signal that we value librarian's time it just won't allocated exactly the same way.
Q. Will the district continue to pursue technology and personalized learning?
A. Technology from our perspective, this is just learning. Our view is that technology supports should be part of learning so you're going to find that teachers will continue through their pro-d (professional development) through learning teams through what they do to augment and develop and grow as teachers, and if that's a technology-based approach that will continue, and we will continue to support it from a district level through our work with the fibre optic program were doing with Coquitlam to make the bandwidth bigger so teachers have more access to the web and bandwidth.
We will slow down a little bit unfortunately on the replacement of equipment so I think you'll see more and more schools moving towards a 'bring your own device' protocol and that will bring its own problems. As well, with the reductions we're having in some of our staffing, repairs will be slower than usual.
Again we're going to try to go forward as best we can without giving up the overall mission and mandate and hope that over time things get better.
From the perspective of teaching and learning and the plans around Learning Without Boundaries, we still have all of our pro-d in place, we don't do catering at our pro-d anymore, and those kinds of things, and we've always had the view that professional learning is part of our jobs, so the majority of it was done during the day. There was a time when we did it after school, I think you may look at voluntary reassignment of pro-d to after school hours, that will change how we offer and how we go forward.
We still have all the aspects of teaching and learning that go on and again it will be from a child or a learner or a parent's perspective (are we) quick enough or fast enough to meet their needs.
From a facility perspective, there have been, again facilities is a separate budget for operating but the ministry is looking at district contributions now to funding projects that they never had before and that's going to cause us to rethink some of the things.
We hope we still get the same number of projects. We still need seismic projects at Banting, at Minnekhada, at Irvine, at Monty (Montgomery middle). We still need a new school at Smiling Creek, we still need a new school at Partington Creek up at the north east. We still need upgrades to schools and so we're still pushing the envelope as best as we can and that's why we went into the whole process of LLN (Learning Lands and Neighbourhoods) so we could make sure that we were able to work with the ministry and get those projects quickly.
We've been actually been pretty good at getting way more than other districts and I think that's because we've been agile and flexible and wiling to look at how do we contribute as best we can. We're waiting for a couple of announcements right now and a couple of additions, cross for your fingers.
Q. Do you think the instability teachers and support workers are concerned about and, once we get through this round of budget cuts and through to next September (the instability) will come to an end, and we will see more stability?
A. When ever you go through this kind of process there's always a sense of grieving, a sense of deflation and then, because of the resiliency of people in this district, some recovery. The extent of that recovery you can never predict, but you hope it's recovery to a certain perspective. And you've heard from the people at the board table, we'll keep trying and we'll keep working hard and we'll do the best we can for the children of the district.
I think for the next couple of years we're going to see very tight and very restricted budgets from the ministry, if I read the intentions, so we're not going to be able to have the huge celebration where we add enormous resources to the district so I think the recovery may be a little muted compared to other times.
But we are resilient as a district, and as a profession, I think we will continue to do the best we can for the students we serve.