After years of turmoil and budget cutting, School District 43 is finally on an even keel when it comes to finances, having paid down most of its debt and weathered two years of layoffs and cost cutting.
Now, it's time to start rebuilding, says Coquitlam Teachers' Association president Charley King, and he's hoping the public will pay attention to next Tuesday's budget meeting and not let up on demands for improvements to education funding.
"It's so easy for underfunding to become the new normal. [You have to show up] to hear those stories and be reminded of what's happening out there," he said of the district's three-week series of budget meetings, which kick off April 12 at Winslow Centre.
Meamwhile, the province today announced $28 million in additional funding for schools to cover labour settlements and 6,500 new students that have arrived to the province, many of them from families leaving Alberta.
"Because we have an increase in enrollment, we want to make sure all of those students are funded," education minister Mike Bernier told The Tri-City News.
The funds are equivalent to about $52 per student, and in SD43 where there are approximately 30,000 students in schools, the sum could total about $1.5 million.
"We realized there was a shortfall and are committed to meeting the gap," Bernier said, adding that the figure was the result of discussions with secretary treasurers from around the province as to what was needed.
He also said a $40 million over payment to the teachers' pension plan will be returned to schools.
This is all good news, but it's hard to say how much it will benefit the average SD43 classroom.
Not long ago, the district was facing a $10-million deficit blamed largely on inaccurate projections but both teachers and the district pointed to chronic underfunding as problems, too.
To stem the bleeding, as many 165 FTE teaching positions were cut, entire departments were reorganized or chopped, middle school cafeterias were closed and bus service was cancelled.
In the three years since, classrooms are larger and teachers are seeing more students with special needs and greater numbers of English language learners as a proportion of students — and all while resources have stayed roughly stagnant.
During last year's budget meetings, for example, trustees were told about longer waiting lists for speech and language services and psychological assessments, and heard stories of how school library hours were cut and fewer books were taken out.
A BETTER FOOTING
Things improved this year. International education revenues from fees foreign students pay added $2.1 million to the bottom line and 300 more students arrived than expected, boosting provincial funding.
Compared to other districts where schools have to be closed to pay the bills, SD43 is in a much better position than it has been in the past. Still, there's no windfall waiting in the wings to run schools in 2016/’17.
While the province's enhancement of $52 per student will help, the district has to find $2.9 million to cover administrative savings required by the province and pay off the remaining $2.8 million in debt.
It's also expecting to see about 174 fewer students in September 2016 than last September.
But with most of the district's financial problems behind it, the CTA's King hopes this year's budget will provide some relief.
"What I think the public should be paying attention to is whether or not the board starts adding back services," he told The Tri-City News.
"In the municipal elections, most ran on a platform of gradually restoring services," King said, adding that the budget meetings will be a good primer for getting up to speed on education in anticipation of the provincial election in May 2017.
The following dates have been set aside for School District 43's 2016/’17 budget process:
• Tuesday, April 12, 7 p.m. — preliminary budget presentation and open house;
• Thursday, April 14, 4 to 5 p.m. — Twitter chat, using hashtag #sd43budget;
• Tuesday, April 19, 6 p.m. — delegations make presentations to the board;
• Tuesday, April 26, 7:30 p.m. — final budget presentation and board approval.
The April 12, 19 and 26 meetings will be held in the gymnasium at Winslow Centre, 1100 Winslow Ave., Coquitlam.