The Surrey Board of Education. (File photo)

Surrey school board says it’s in good financial shape despite $21M shortfall

Shortfall was $4.6 million higher than expected this school year in Surrey

SURREY — The Surrey Board of Education has amended its budget for this school year after a shortfall came in $4.6 million higher than anticipated.

At its last meeting on Feb. 14, the board heard that expenses exceeded revenues by $21 million, which is $4.6 million higher than the budget predicted. Despite that, a report to the board notes the district “is projecting to remain in a strong financial position.”

The report stated the shortfall will be offset by an Operating Fund balance from previous years. It also stated that the remainder of the money in the fund will help offest future shortfalls.

Surrey Board of Education vice-chair Terry Allen said it’s not unusual for the board to amend the budget, noting things like ICBC increases or teacher salaries could mean an unexpected jump in expenses. He also stressed that the money used to cover the shortfall is not surplus.

In the big picture, $21 million is not a lot, said Allen, noting the board oversees a $700-million budget.

“But the impact is huge,” he noted, “because $21 million would amount to probably 40 teachers laid off, 80 support staff and a number of programs cut.”

He said portables and classroom space are – and will continue to be – the “number one issue” in the school board’s budget. Right now, the board pays approximately $4 million a year out its operating fund for portables, he added.

“We put in 50 (portables) last year,” Allen noted. “We’re already talking that we’re going to need a minimum of 10 more portables so those are cost factors. Then 10 becomes 15 and we have to buy them, place them…. We just don’t have enough schools. The board’s position will never change: The students and children of Surrey should not be held for ransom because the province isn’t providing appropriate amount of classroom space.”

What happens, explained Allen, is a loss of resource rooms and other extras.

“They’re just not there anymore because we’re having to use everything possible for classroom space.”

But, Allen added, “Financially we’re good to go unless there’s a major crisis.”

Meanwhile, the district is seeking input from parent on budget priorities for the next school year.

This is the second year that the district has added social media and a “PlaceSpeak” as options for parents to respond, instead of just email, letters and public consultations.

It resulted in 4,000 people visiting the district’s budget site last year, and nearly 250 responses through PlaceSpeak, which is an online engagement platform designed for consultation.

Click here to visit PlaceSpeak.

Allen wrote that the need for more classrooms was identified as one of the top priorities, “with many parents asking for smaller class sizes and a more balanced teacher-to-student ratio.”

“As you may know,” he continued, “in November 2016, the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation won a long legal battle ending in the Supreme Court of Canada. The result of this for Surrey was the infusion of almost $40 million for new teachers in a number of categories. As a result of this win and prior to the public budget consultation, Surrey Schools began the process of hiring 336 full-time teachers.”

During budget deliberations, Allen noted, the board was faced with a decision on how much funding to contribute to a possible new school in Clayton.

“As a result of parent feedback, the board and the Ministry of Education decided to expedite shared funding of $26 million toward Regent Road Elementary in Clayton Heights, making it the first priority project approved by the joint executive Surrey project board,” Allen wrote. “While the bulk of funding was provided by the Ministry of Education, the supporting funding provided by our board of education ensured that this new school would be built and the board was directly influenced by the public feedback on this project. Construction of the 655-student elementary school is expected to begin in spring 2018 and finish in winter 2020.”

The board values parent input, Allen noted.

“We look forward to your comments and priorities for the 2018-19 school year and once again, your voice helps shape our decisions,” he wrote. “Your voice matters and we want to hear your priorities.”

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