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School surplus draws skepticism, concerns

But the board of education agrees to spread the anticipated $2.5 million in surplus funds over three years; what they'll spend it on must still be decided

School District 43 trustees want teachers and other groups to have some say in how a $2.5-million surplus is spent.

And they aren’t comfortable putting an additional $500,000 contingency fund into the superintendent’s hands for spending on classroom organization in September without more debate.

That’s the outcome of a special board of education meeting held Tuesday to discuss the surplus. The meeting was marred by confusion over numbers, disagreements over what constitutes a surplus and uncertainty over motions.
In the end, the board agreed to divide the $2.5 million surplus expected at the end of this school year between 2015/’16 and two following years, at $800,000 a year.

But the Tri-Cities’ trustees were unable to agree on what the money should be used for and chose not to vote on using the contingency fund, even though they were told by staff that money was desperately needed to deal with class size and composition issues in September, when student enrolment will be confirmed.

Superintendent Patricia Gartland warned that organizing classes in September would be “paralyzed” without extra funding in reserve for education assistants and teachers for extra classes required to accommodate students moving in and out of the district and between schools.

The concern about how to spend the contingency is a sensitive topic for trustees, who reversed a decision made in April to spend some of it on speech and language pathologists and psychologists to deal with waiting lists.

But on Tuesday, classroom organization was the biggest concern and trustees were told that a suggestion made last week that some money be spent on reducing waiting lists for psycho-educational assessments would have to wait until classes are organized in September. If any funds are available, they could be used then.

Finance staff started off the meeting with an analysis of the district’s third-quarter financial situation and predicted a $2.5-million “unrestricted surplus,” which comes from a variety of sources, including higher than expected international education student enrolment, lower utility costs, extra money from the province when spring enrolment was confirmed and investment income.

Secretary treasurer Mark Ferrari further added that the sum, equivalent to between 1% and 1.5% of the total $275-million budget, is a good margin, adding, “The budget wasn’t wrong. It’s just one cent of every dollar wasn’t spent.”

But trustees weren’t convinced about the best way to spend the money and how much the surplus is. Port Moody Trustee Keith Watkins said the surplus is actually $11 million and was in part created by overly-ambitious cuts made to the budget last year and higher than forecasted international education fees this year.

Ferrari said Watkins’ numbers didn’t match the district’s trend analysis and the differences were not only in scope but in a misunderstanding of what a surplus is because the district isn’t free to spend money, such as $2 million in school allocations not spent because schools have plans to use it, and can’t spend extra international education revenue until foreign students are in classes in September.

“That’s not our funds to use for operations,” Ferrari said.


Watkins said school allocations have been spent in the past for operations, and money the province holds back until enrolment is confirmed has also been put in the budget, but Ferrari said it wasn't a good idea to count on holdback funds in the budget because the money is not guaranteed.

A better practice, Ferrari said, is to put the holdback in the following year's budget and spend it once the money has been confirmed.

In prior years, SD43 has counted on the money and came up short when the province kept it, but the change in practice is one reason the district has $2.3 million to spend in 2015/16, and will be dividing it up between debt repayment and operations.

Another chunk of money was released by the province in April and is now counted as part of the $2.5 million surplus for this school year, and trustees want more information about these funds.

Trustees also weren't sure what to do with a motion that was postponed from the previous week because it contained an erroneous figure and a second motion had to be re-stated by Port Coquitlam trustee Michael Thomas to divide the $2.5 million over three years, with a later amendment added by Coquitlam trustee Diane Sowden to require consultation on how the funds should be spent.

Kerri Palmer Isaak, the Anmore trustee, said it's a good idea to spend the money over three years to add stability to the system, but some some trustees said they still don't have a grasp on the district's money situation.

Port Coquitlam trustee Judy Shirra and Coquitlam trustee Barb Hobson opposed the surplus spending motions, with both wanting more clarification on the numbers and saying the board didn't have a clear picture of what numbers they were working with and how the surplus was achieved.

For Coquitlam Teachers Federation president Charley King the debate was long on talk and short on numbers or specifics. He would like the surplus to be spent on staff now not in September because some teachers being laid off now don't know if they have jobs to return to. "In a corporate world it (the surplus) it's considered profit but in a school district, it's lost services," King told The News.

Parents, meanwhile, would like to see some of the surplus go to supporting District Parent Advisory Council education programs because a lot of changes are coming in the education system and parents don't know about them. "Give money to parents so they know the direction of the province for our children's education," Edward Ram said. 

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