School District 71 is relatively healthy fiscally when it comes to its latest budget.
Not so long ago, the district, like many others, was facing decline, though in recent years, school enrolment has been growing. This is not the case everywhere.
“We’re in a good position compared to other school districts,” budget committee chair Janice Caton said at the February board of education meeting.
She added that she expects funding could be tightened up by the province in the coming year, but for now, the district’s financial plan is relatively stable.
The district puts together a preliminary budget in advance of each school year. Once the district has an enrolment count at the end of September, the Ministry of Education determines the operating grant for a district. After this point, the district completes its final budget to be passed by the end of February. In this case, the operating grant in the amended budget was roughly $97.2 million compared with just over $94 million previously. This represents the vast majority of the revenue.
During the meeting, secretary-treasurer Brenda Hooker outlined some of the features of the amended budget.
“At the end of the day, it’s all balanced,” she said.
The document includes a 2.5 per cent increase to contingency reserves.
A drop in online enrolment was expected with students returning to classrooms, though this was not that sharp a decline, and with other increases, district enrolment grew. The amended version of the budget was higher for both revenue and expenses compared with the previous version. The main driver for the increase has been higher than projected enrolment, but that also comes with challenges.
“Along with increased revenue is increased costs,” Hooker said.
For example, the district will add more staffing. As well, there is a two per cent salary increase for all employees. The additional staff, plus higher salaries and benefits, have resulted in an increase of more than $3.7 million for staffing costs.
This increase also includes measures such as COVID precautions for school buildings and vehicles, Hooker said.
One concern trustees raised was the rising cost of fuel and whether this was built in to the contract with First Student Canada.
Director of operations Ian Heselgrave responded that there is a base price but the district does pay more as fuel costs rise.
In response, the board wanted to know about whether there were options for electric buses. Heselgrave said the Ministry of Education is looking into the matter and that First Student is conducting trials, but the district would need to check with local management if the buses were a possibility in the Comox Valley.
The budget also includes sections such as upcoming capital projects. The plan sets aside an additional roughly $2.4 million for work such as nine outdoor classrooms. Other projects include work at Arden and Huband Elementary, additional IT costs and a remake of the entrance at Mark Isfeld to make it more accessible as well as add a new sign. Of this last project, Heselgrave explained this will improve traffic flow at the entrance of the school. As well, they will create an outdoor learning space.
The board unanimously voted to hold all readings for the budget bylaw at the Feb. 22 meeting, which meant they would not have to hold another special meeting to adopt the bylaw in time for the ministry deadline. The trustees then passed all readings to finalize the budget.