Surrey School District facing $8.5M budget shortfall

District wants province to cover $4.5-million it spends on portables.

Surrey school Trustee Terry Allen.

Surrey school Trustee Terry Allen.

The Surrey School District is facing a budget shortfall of about $8.5 million for the upcoming school year – a figure officials say could be cut in half if the province would cover the more than $4 million the district is forced to spend on portables.

Trustee Terry Allen said the anticipated operating deficit means cuts will have to be made “across the board” in Surrey and could potentially impact supply budgets, programs, services and staffing.

“The instructions are to make them (cuts) as far away from the classroom as possible, but there’s nothing that we provide that isn’t classroom driven,” said Allen.

He said trustees met with local MLAs two weeks ago, but instead of “hammering away” at them over the general shortage of operating funding, which most districts are also facing, they focussed on the millions Surrey spends on portables annually.

Surrey currently has about 320 portables and must not only pay for the buildings, but for their depreciation, upkeep, utilities servicing and cleaning. Because the city is growing far more quickly than schools are being built or expanded, so-called temporary portable classrooms cost Surrey more than any other B.C. school district.

“Across the province, there’s special funding for everything else,” said Allen, referring to extra grants provided to districts in colder climates to cover extra heating costs, or to rural districts for busing.

The concept of providing the growing district with extra funding for portables is not unheard of. In 2010, then-minister of education Margaret MacDiarmid gave Surrey an extra $2.5 million to offset portable costs associated with the mandated implementation of full-day kindergarten.

“A clear precedent has been set here,” said Allen. “We’re not asking for something we haven’t received before.”

While building money comes out of a school district’s capital budget, portable costs come out of the operating budget, which must also cover all day-to-day school expenses such as staffing, programs, supplies and utilities.

Allen, who chairs the budget committee, said while he understands provincial dollars are tight, Surrey’s distinct situation should be acknowledged.

“I know there’s no money. But when we have a shortfall of $8.5 million and $4.5 million of our budget is being driven by additional costs for portable classrooms, something is seriously wrong. It’s not just frustrating, it’s appalling.”

Surrey is also still awaiting capital money to build new school space that would help alleviate overcrowding and the number of portables needed. A year-and-a-half ago, the province announced $10.5 million for a new high school in the rapidly expanding Clayton neighbourhood, but the district has yet to receive the funding.

Education Minister Peter Fassbender’s office was not able to return calls as of Wednesday.

The Surrey school board will announce its 2004-2015 operating budget on June 19. The B.C. government requires all B.C. school districts to submit balanced budgets by June 30.

Surrey North Delta Leader