School buses were cut in last year’s school budget. This year there may be a budget surplus.

School buses were cut in last year’s school budget. This year there may be a budget surplus.

Class sizes to shrink but trouble finding teachers

School District 52 in Prince Rupert navigates this year's budget after the Supreme Court ruled that class sizes must shrink in B.C.

Question marks surround the exact size and number of classes heading into 2017-18 for the Prince Rupert School District (SD52) making the degree of predictability for the new budget quite the moving target.

With the recent Supreme Court ruling to restore B.C. teachers’ rights and working conditions, including making class sizes smaller, senior staff at SD52 have been busy anticipating just what that will mean for a school district that struggles to recruit and retain teachers.

This year is a much different problem compared to 2016-17 when the school district needed to find $1.9 million in savings to balance the books, leading to massive cuts like the elimination of the student bussing budget, save for a single bus for Metlakatla and Port Edward students.

The “status quo” budget, or the starting point before the district gets a firmer grasp on what  a tentative new deal between the BC Teachers Federation and the province will look like (a draft was set to be ratified late last week), sees the district with a current revenue figure of $25,182,000.

Wages and benefits will cost $21,726,000, supplies and services will cost $3,245,000 and capital and benefits expenditures add up to $247,000, leading to a projected deficit of $36,000.

“It’s virtually balanced at the moment,” said SD52 secretary treasurer Cam McIntyre at the district’s Advisory Budget Consultation session to the public on March 9.

“And that’s not using the surplus money that might be there,” McIntyre said.

Last year, approximately 20 unexpected teacher retirements and departures resulted in an additional savings of almost half a million dollars, leaving the district with a current forecast of $1,175,000 in surplus funds to end this year.

This upcoming year, SD52 will engage in further Prince Rupert Middle School replacement planning, to put SD52 in a better position to move forward with the project should the ministry announce a replacement school (it has been No. 1 on the school board’s wish list for a few years now). The district will also look to replace its software program that handles payroll, accounting and human resources.

SD52 will also lose $360,000 in funding protection for 2017-18, with $1,937,000 in funding protection remaining going into 2017-18 and beyond. Funding for collective agreements is expected.

The district is not anticipating an increase or change in enrolment, which has been historically low this past year, at just under 2,000 students.

“We don’t expect to see, immediately, a lot of impact from the AltaGas propane terminal because that’s going to be under construction, but depending how quickly [DP World’s] Fairview terminal manages to use its new capacity, we’ll see new students come in then,” said McIntyre.

In terms of recruiting and retaining teachers, the district has been actively seeking new hires from Quebec, Toronto and B.C. universities, but will need help from the province when competing with urban areas, since all B.C. school districts will be hiring 1,100 teachers this summer.

After stakeholder meetings with partner groups, the Aboriginal Education department said they would like to see an emphasis on hiring Aboriginal employees, including principals, to continue supporting Sm’algyax language teaching and to support a national holiday to remember residential school students.

The District Parent Advisory Council asked for more transportation options in town, to make use of old school buildings and reduce the number of board trustees.

SD52 superintendent Sandy Jones defended the work of administrators, who she said are the frequent targets of staffing reduction calls, adding there is no plan to replace assistant superintendent Ken Minette’s position (who will be superintendent next year with Jones’ retirement).

“The value of administrators is that they work outside the bells and don’t take prep time. They work under very challenging conditions all the time … The amount of work that has piled onto principals’ and vice-principals’ platters, since I started as a vice-principal, is enormous and nothing can be taken off,” she said.

Jones also explained that the board and staff have been advocating for a middle school replacement for years.