By Matthew Liebenberg
The Chinook School Division is facing another challenging budget situation after receiving details from the provincial government about their funding allocation for 2023-24.
Board members discussed the implications of a budget allocation that does not keep pace with inflationary pressures during a regular board meeting, April 17.
The school division’s grant of $79.79 million is an increase of 0.5 per cent or approximately $400,000 more than for 2022-23.
Chinook Board Chair Kimberly Pridmore said during the meeting there will be a budget deficit for the 2023-24 financial year.
“Our deficit in Chinook comes mainly from two areas, transportation and staffing,” she said. “We’re $3 million over budget in total in these areas out of an approximately $4 million cash deficit.”
She referred to the impact of a major provincial budget reduction to school divisions six years ago, when Chinook School Division’s allocation was reduced by over $6 million.
“The division has continued to find cost savings and made reductions in all areas, including central office staff, while trying to minimize the impact on classrooms,” she said. “Our message today is that we need sufficient resources to pay our expenses. We’ve made over $10 million in reductions since 2016-17. However, these reductions have been eaten up by rising inflationary costs while decreasing supports that need to be available for students.”
She attended the Saskatchewan School Boards Association Spring Assembly in early April, where it was clear that other school boards are facing similar challenges and most of them are expecting to have a deficit for the 2023-24 school year.
“School boards are increasingly concerned that the provincial budget contributes to the existing instability and continuing erosion of the publicly funded education system,” she said.
Other trustees also expressed concerns about the 2023-24 budget allocation and its implications for Chinook School Division.
Ken Duncalfe felt the provincial government’s emphasis on growth does not consider the role that education can play in achieving those goals. He noted that both the provinces of Alberta and Manitoba are making larger investments in education compared to Saskatchewan.
“So I really think we’re going to lose an opportunity, which put us at a competitive disadvantage to attract the people we need, the young families we need to support this growth agenda that they’re really touting,” he said. “I can get behind the growth, but we have to be able to have the people to educate people and have those families. To me it just doesn’t add up. How do you expect to grow without properly funding education?”
Rachael Eliason spoke about the inflationary pressures faced by the school division and the difficulties to deal with it when the budget allocation only increased 0.5 per cent.
“I’m still hearing the government say that inflationary pressures don’t really apply to school divisions, but somehow we still have to maintain the buildings and the buses and we’re still supposed to heat the buildings and we’re also supposed to put fuel in the buses and the inflationary increases in some of those areas is much higher than five or six per cent,” she said.
Katelyn Toney referred to the findings from a recent Fraser Institute report about education spending in public schools in Canada. The data indicate that per student funding in Saskatchewan was the highest among all provinces in 2012-13, but it has dropped to sixth place in 2019-20.
“Boards have worked hard to keep upwards pressure of inflation and enrolment growth, but the operational funding doesn’t cover the actual cost and funding isn’t there to pay for any investments in achieving high quality outcomes for students,” she said. “I know that our provincial government strongly believes in and values the importance of education and investing into the growth of our province. So it is time for this government to financially support those values and the students.”
Tim Ramage noted that schools have become a hub for providing mental health supports to families and children. The school division wants to be able to provide these supports and he does not want students to fall through the cracks when they are struggling and going through a difficult time.
“We need that additional funding and we need it to be sustainable,” he said. “We want our children to succeed within our school division and I think all through the province.”
Pridmore and Chinook Director of Education Mark Benesh spoke to the Prairie Post after the meeting about the budget situation.
Student enrolment is a key variable in the funding formula used to determine the budgetary allocation of each school division. The school division’s 0.5 per cent increase might even be lower if more students enrol for online classes with the new provincial online school, the Saskatchewan Distance Learning Corporation.
The various inflationary pressures experienced by the school division includes a significant increase in insurance costs. The school division delayed the purchase of new buses during the past year as a measure to lower the deficit, but these vehicles are now more expensive to buy.
“Over the course of just one year the price of buses went up almost 25 per cent,” Pridmore said. “So the $400,000 that we might have seen a savings at some point gets eaten up right away by an additional 25 per cent just to buy those buses.”
As was the case in previous years, the school division will be using reserve funds to cover the 2023-24 budget deficit.
“We’ll make a few reductions that we would normally do to some degree, but we’re doing our best to keep as much of the resources in the classroom,” Benesh said. “So thereby the majority is going to come out of reserves, based on what the board discussed today.”
Pridmore said their goal is to limit any staff reductions, because there were significant reductions in the 2022-23 budget that affected about 20 individuals, of which most were part-time positions.
“That’s why we want to stay away from that as much as we would this year,” she mentioned. “So it will be a very small number of reductions and that’s why we want to take more out of reserves to avoid that impact in the classroom.”
The school division’s current financial reserves are about $10.8 million and the intention to use it for the 2023-24 deficit will reduce those reserves to around $7 million. The depletion of reserve funds in the near future might mean more direct impacts on classrooms thereafter. Benesh noted that other school divisions with no reserves have no option but to implement cuts.
“So we hope that at some point the government invest before we get to the point where we have no other option but to cut across the division, which no board wants to have to do and impact students in that way,” he said.