Wheels on the bus

Anxiety has set in among some parents and educators in the Okanagan Skaha School District over concerns about a looming budget deficit and what effect it’s having on classrooms.

The audited financial statements for the 2018-19 year presented to the school board at its meeting Sept. 30 show the district finished with an operating deficit of $240,000, while the budget in place for this year projects an operating deficit of $370,000.

Since the start of the current year, The Herald has spoken to numerous educators and parents – none of whom would go on the record for fear of reprisals – about apparent cuts in service they feel have come as a result of budget pressures. Yet they haven’t been told officially what’s happening.

Even the head of the Okanagan Skaha Teachers’ Union doesn’t have clear picture of what’s going on.

“The union was informed that some teachers’ assignments would be changed, even a change of school for a couple of folks, in relation to what they were told in May and June or when they were hired over the summer,” said OSTU president Kevin Epp.

“The result was a reduction in terms of what was planned. I'd say that there are fewer teachers in place now than what the projections were at the end of the last school year.  As well, certainly I've been made aware by teachers that it appears there have been reductions in a number of budget areas that will affect services to kids.”

Yet the district’s secretary-treasurer maintains there are no reductions.

“There are no cuts – that’s not to say there’s no change,” Kevin Lorenz said in an interview.

“My expectation is that although money is tight – and we’re managing it as if it’s tight – there are going to be no cuts, no layoffs, no radical swings,” he continued.

“We’re hiring just as many teachers as we did last year. We’re hiring just as many (education assistants) this year as we did last year. Now, is that as many EAs as we would like or as many as the parents would want? That’s an entirely different question, but we’re not laying anybody off.”

Lorenz did, however, confirm most of the changes The Herald was told about.

  •  The position of district principal for aboriginal education has been eliminated following the resignation of Pam Spooner, who took a job elsewhere. Her duties have been reassigned to other district administrators.
  •  Principals have been told to reign in their school supply budgets. Lorenz noted the regular instruction supply budget has decreased from $2.1 to $1.4 million, and some of that money will stay with the district for district-wide purchases.
  • ]Flex funding, which was given to schools to offset teachers’ professional development time and totalled about $100,000 last year, has been clawed back by the district, which will use some of that cash to offer its own educational opportunities for staff.
  • Schools are no longer getting a $300 allotment for each international student. Instead, the money is now “essentially rolled into the funding formula on a per-student basis,” explained Lorenz.
  • The budget for special education has dipped to $9.3 million, down about $400,000 from what was spent last year, but Lorenz said the number of staffers, primarily education assistants, devoted to those learners won’t change, although where they work might vary. “Every September as students arrive, EAs get reassigned based on where the need is,” explained Lorenz. “We’re hiring just as many this year as we did last year.”
  • The Gateway to the Trades program, which saw 16 students at Princess Margaret Secondary School undertake a 12-week introduction to the building trades in partnership with Okanagan College, has been eliminated as the district’s budget for career programming has slid to $289,000 from the $480,000 spent last year. Lorenz noted it’s not unusual for some programs to run in alternating semesters or years.
  • The district last year liquidated investments worth $3 million, leaving just $2.5 million in its portfolio. “The investments matured and were moved to the district bank accounts. The funds were not cashed out or used for any singular purchase. We regularly move funds in and out of short-term investments to better manage the district’s cash flow,” said Lorenz.

The Herald is interested in hearing from other parents or educators who have concerns about classroom supports this year. Contact us confidentially by email at editor@pentictonherald.ca or call 250-490-0880 extension 304.