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Finance change could shake up school district earthquake plans

Chilliwack school district may no longer be able to hold a “rainy day” fund.

Last week the provincial government rolled out a new strategy that would offload some of the costs of capital projects and seismic upgrades onto school districts that have funds available.

Currently the new strategy won’t affect Chilliwack as it has limited reserves on the books and no seismic upgrades planned, but the fear of what may be looms.

“Certainly it is concerning that there continues to be a downloading protocol the government keeps using,” said Chilliwack board of education chair Walt Krahn.

Until now, all capital projects at public schools have been funded by the provincial government.

The new policy is in response to an auditor-general’s report in 2010 that found there’s too much excess cash being held by public sector agencies, including school districts, said Ben Green, education ministry spokesperson.

A subsequent auditor-general’s report released last month reached the same conclusion.

To deal with the issue, the finance ministry launched its “cash management strategy” that requires school districts to consider cost-sharing of capital and seismic projects.

Even though Chilliwack’s facilities are seismically up to date, the school district is in need of a new school, especially on the south side where the schools are either at or above capacity.

If a new school is approved, this new strategy could require the district to share costs.

“We’re not totally sure, at this point, what this all means,” said secretary treasurer Gerry Slykhuis.

Chilliwack currently has a $500,000 reserve saved away for unexpected expenses like last fall’s byelection, or the CUPE salary increase that was left for school districts to fund.

It’s a figure the Chilliwack board has wrestled with for years. Some trustees feel all money should be put into the classroom, whereas others would like more money in the reserves for emergencies.

“There’s a philosophical discussion for how much is reasonable to hold on to for emergencies,” said Slykhuis. “However, if you don’t have reserves and something unforeseen comes up, then you’re into a deficit which means you have less money for the next year.

“And $500,000 is pretty small in a $120 million budget.”

~ with files from Burnaby NewsLeader

kbartel@theprogress.com

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