There’s no time to waste as School District 67 trustees scramble to retain a financial adviser to help them finalize the 2019-20 amended budget, which must be submitted to the Ministry of Education by Friday.
Trustees on Monday night voted 4-3 to hire outside help due to public concerns about budget cuts and a lack of transparency on the part of district staff.
School board chairman Trustee James Palanio said Tuesday the group is scheduled to meet behind closed doors Wednesday as part of its unrelated search for a new superintendent and will use the session to plot a way forward on the budget and discuss the adviser’s position.
The move to hire an independent financial adviser at an estimated cost of $10,000 was led by Trustee Tracy Van Raes, who isn’t looking for something as formal as a forensic audit.
“I would prefer we hire someone who is experienced in finances and education,” she said in an email Tuesday.
“Someone who can not only look at the budget for this year and next, but can look at enrolment and… reporting as well as management practices surrounding this.”
Education Minister Rob Fleming wasn’t available for comment Tuesday, but an unsigned statement from a ministry spokesperson said the government doesn’t plan to intervene.
“It is good practice for boards of education to have the information needed to make these important decisions and this is an appropriate course of action in their current process. The ministry supports this,” the statement said.
Kevin Epp, president of the Okanagan Skaha Teachers Union, said he’s looking forward to the outcome of the review.
“I am pleased that our locally elected trustees heard the concerns of the public, of teachers, of past trustees and parents,” Epp said in in an email.
“It seems clear that many voices within our area are asking (trustees) to take steps to ensure that district finances are in order.”
News of the independent adviser was also welcomed by Penticton MLA Dan Ashton.
“In my opinion, it’s long overdue. This is about the kids,” he said.
“Hopefully (trustees) can get their finances back in order so they’re not dipping into capital projects and putting it into operations.”
Ashton, on behalf of the then-Liberal government in 2016, offered to have the Ministry of Education send in a special adviser to assist School District 67 as it grappled with possible school closures.
The offer was rejected and, based on superintendent Wendy Hyer’s comments Monday, politically motivated.
“That’s something MLA Ashton said to the public, and certainly perhaps his government might have supported that idea, but the Ministry of Education did not,” said Hyer.
Not so, according to Mike Bernier, who was minister of education at that time.
“What we said was that we would be more than willing to assist if they requested it. I was not going to impose it,” Bernier recalled in a phone interview Tuesday.
“We offered and said, ‘If you want, we will send in some staff to help. We will send in an auditor, we will send in some other professionals to help you.”
“They never followed up on our request.”
The amended budget that got first two readings Monday makes ends meet by spending $850,000 from the sale of the former McNicoll Park Middle School and clawing back $300,000 from local high schools that had been earmarked to purchase new mini-buses and technology products.
Summerland Trustee Dave Stathers, who previously expressed a desire to put all $11.5 million from the sale of McNicoll Park towards a new gym at Summerland Secondary School, said he was reluctantly going along with the plan to shave off $850,000.
“As a trustee of this district, I have to think of what’s best for the entire district,” said Stathers, “even though it pains me to think that long-term gym (plan) is going to be compromised."
The proposed budget also shows the district is projected to spend $2.2 million on substitute teachers this year, up from $1.6 million last year.
Hyer rejected suggestions teachers have been taking leaves in higher-than-expected numbers due to budget cuts, but said morale has been affected by The Herald’s coverage of the district’s financial troubles.
“Are teachers stressed? You bet they are,” said Hyer. “They’re stressed from all of the media attention.”
Secretary-treasurer Kevin Lorenz, who departed Monday’s meeting during a break, leaving Hyer to take minutes, told the crowd the district’s financial difficulties stem from three main issues: reduced funding as a result of an unexpected drop in enrolment of 100 full-time students; a $240,000 deficit from the prior year; and higher-than-expected costs for substitute teachers and special-needs students.
While they didn’t pass the budget, trustees did wrap up one other piece of business by approving a policy change that will allow the district to charge courtesy riders an as-yet undetermined fee for busing.
A courtesy rider is defined by the district as a student who lives within walking distance of his catchment school but takes the bus anyway.