Surrey School District building. (File photo)

Surrey School District building. (File photo)

‘We’re in a financial lockdown’: Surrey school district working with $40M budget deficit

District, board points to lack of immigration for new student enrolment

The Surrey school district is looking at a $40-million budget shortfall, pointing to the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of immigration.

Superintendent Jordan Tinney presented to the board of education on Wednesday (April 14) on a budget overview and the impacts of COVID-19, saying “now it is really time to pay the piper.”

In a breakdown of the deficit in the pandemic, Tinney said there are financial losses due to the lack of rentals and international students, the one-time $29 million in funding from the federal government and the one-time $5 million in provincial funding. He also pointed to the loss in enrolment that the district budgeted for and spent, which was $10 million “we had overspent.”

“In just one year, we went from our very typical increase of $6.7 million to a reduction of $10 million. That’s a $17 million differential in how we normally operate,” he noted. “And of course, a system gets in a rhythm and we are so used to planning for growth and that’s just the way we are that this comes as a cold shock.”

Tinney said the district was projecting between 700 and 800 new students, “knowing that, ultimately, about 1,000 is our normal range.”

However, he said elementary schools were down about 900 students, while secondary schools were up about 50 students. \

READ ALSO: Surrey school district student enrolment down from projections, Sept. 18, 2020

That was “substantial enrolment decline,” he said.

He pointed to the lack of immigration during the pandemic. In the summer before the 2019-2020 school year, he said the district’s Welcome Centre, which helps immigrant students and their families integrate into the district and the community, helped about 700 families.

“Last year, that went right down to a trickle.”

Trustee Gary Tymoschuk asked Tinney if the drop in enrolment was due to the lack of new immigrants.

Tinney said it’s “absolutely” immigration.

“We’ve always sort of had this question in the back of our head of how much does immigration drive Surrey’s population, and we answered it in one year,” he noted. “We see that through the Welcome Centre because we saw the dramatic change in the number of families through the welcome centre and we saw 800 families not arrive.”

Tinney said the $10 million was budgeted and spent in the spring on hiring teachers, educational assistants, vice-principals and principals “for enrolment of students that then didn’t arrive.”

Trustee Garry Thind asked if the district is tracking how many families are being helped through the Welcome Centre this year, and Tinney said it’s “seeing a rebound.”

Tinney added the district is projecting it could be up 500 students for the 2021-2022 school year.

“In any ‘normal’ year, we would have had no choice but to go into layoffs,” said Tinney, adding it would have been about 100 people “at the very least, but that’s how we would have corrected.”

He said the district chose not to layoff staff and instead hired staff to help with the pandemic, including hiring about 130 caretakers, bought millions of dollars in cleaning supplies and developed new digital resources.

“We did everything we could to keep the ball rolling and keep the children in school and being provided with the additional funds to make this happen,” he said.

“But now, it’s one year later and it really is time to pay the piper.”

Tinney said the $40-million deficit is a “combination of things that have landed on our doorstep and this is the hard work that we and the board have to do at this time.”

“There’s really only one way to make that type of reduction go away. We have to reduce everywhere we possibly can.”

The finance committee, he said, has directed staff and the board to find way to avoid cuts from staff and classroom work.

“No matter how hard you look, you will never be able to address a $40-million reduction without going into people,” he said.

“We’re in a financial lockdown.”

Trustee Terry Allen said while it’s a “grim story,” the board will do everything in its power to make sure “cuts are as far away from the classroom as possible.”

“I just want people to understand that’s what we will do. We will protect the classrooms to the very best of our ability and we will make the cuts and people will be laid off and jobs will be lost and it won’t be an easy decision for the board to do that.

But, Allen noted, “You don’t have a pandemic every other year.”

However, Tinney said he believes the district “will recover.”

“I believe firmly that Surrey is going to return to strong growth … But it’s going to take at least one very hard year.”

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