It might have been the toughest decisions made by the Prince Rupert School District (SD52) board members in their entire careers.
Facing a $1.9 million budget shortfall, representing four per cent of Prince Rupert’s overall budget for the year and not having to make significant cuts for more than a decade, the school board took a long hard look at their options Tuesday night, April 12, at the most recent school council meeting, and slashed.
It was student transportation that bore the brunt of the financial axe.
In the operational budget, all yellow busses and the Metlakatla ferry were chopped for the upcoming year, effectively discontinuing school bus service by the Prince Rupert School District next year.
$130,000 was saved by removing the yellow busses and $160,000 was saved by removing the Metlakatla ferry. Special needs bussing remains unaffected.
“It was a very serious and difficult decision,” said SD52 superintendent Sandra Jones.
The cuts were necessary to reach a threshold of $1,319,500 in savings after district senior staff had already found approximately $1.3 million in savings.
An additional $500,000 needed to be cut in order for the school district to reach an operating surplus used to cover unexpected costs within the year, such as a drastic rise in student numbers thanks to major industry projects in the region, or other mid-year surprise costs.
“We’ve never been here before,” said board chair Tina Last, referencing the magnitude of cuts needed to be made.
“It was hard because those are students and families that are impacted. We’re tasked with educating those kids – all kids. When you’re looking at the needs of 2,000-plus kids (latest figures show SD52 to possess 2,043 students, down 12 from last year), not necessarily the 22 that ride the ferry or however many ride the bus, it’s hard because you’re cutting something that families have come to rely on.”
However, avenues are still open to be explored by the district to help the transportation issue for students. A late April meeting with the City of Prince Rupert mayor and council has been organized to come to a solution regarding public transportation and SD52 students.
“I would love that when we sit down and talk, maybe we can find a mutual benefitting arrangement, whether it’s the city bus, student bus passes or what have you and even if it’s the school district advocating on behalf of the parents whose students need the bus, we have the appetite to do that and I’m sure the city will entertain it at least,” Last said.
The district also plans on reaching out to Metlakatla to see how the 22 students from the First Nation can be transported.
In addition to the busses and ferry, the school board reduced elementary librarian hours from $180,000 in salaries to $110,000 or a reduction of 0.7 full time equivalent (fte) hours for $70,000.
“It still leaves us with some meaningful librarian assistance in those schools and that’s important to me and to schools generally so I’m glad we were able to keep a piece of that,” said Jones.
Many other positions were reduced in hours or eliminated completely, including library assistants, secretaries, custodians and kindergarten resource workers.
Through attrition, the number of principals in the district reduced by 1.5, as Prince Rupert Middle School (PRMS) will have principal Ken Minette work out of the board office, instead of both the office and PRMS, and Port Edward School will not have a principal due to declining student numbers (approximately 15 students are anticipated to attend in 2016).
The department head, team leader, administrative assistant, occupational therapist, speech language assistant, and in-school support positions all saw reduced hours or eliminations and the supplies budget experienced an over 10 per cent reduction. As well the educational psychologist trips were reduced from five to four and fewer rental waivers will be granted by the district, resulting in savings of $75,000. With the two-week spring break, one less week of work for IUOE employees results in additional savings.
The closure of Port Edward Community School was also on the table, but was rejected due to legislative procedural violation concerns from a lack of public consultation, though its closure remains a possibility for future years.
“We’ve been in the great, good fortune of having funding protection for a number of years and you get used to that. But if we look at what other districts are making do with, you can see that we were living fairly large. It doesn’t feel like that for people and I know there will be some sad faces tomorrow and going forward, but I think the board made some really tough, but necessary decisions. We work with very professional people and we will make this work,” said Jones.
The district’s 2016-17 budget stands at approximately $26 million with future funding protection of $1.8 million.
“That means we’ll be looking at reductions in the future, or in a better, ideal world we’ll have a whole bunch of new students come in that would make that funding protection go away,” said SD52 secretary treasurer Cam McIntyre.