This school year’s budget is still moving through the approval process at the Chilliwack board of education table.
The board has one more meeting, Feb. 23, to approve the amended budget for 2020/2021 before it needs to be sent off to the Ministry of Education for their deadline. The board has been working with this budget all year, now sitting at just over $174 million, and the amendments are reflections of what has changed since it was first introduced.
And it’s bringing up a bit of confusion and concerns among various trustees.
“It is a balanced budget,” the district’s secretary treasurer, Gerry Slykhuis, told the board during the Feb. 9 meeting. “It was a challenging budget to balance.”
To get to a balanced budget, senior staff used hold back funding that’s expected later this year. Hold back funding is related to enrolments, and hasn’t been given to districts in about seven years, Slykhuis explained.
“In years when there is a declining enrolment, there is money at the end of the year and it’s released to the school districts,” he said, adding that they’ve been given an estimate from the ministry and will find out the exact amount in the late spring. “For seven years, enrolment has gone the other way (increased).”
Enrolment was lower than anticipated this year, he added, and hold back funding will be coming. He also repeated that next year’s budget will likely be even harder to balance. The district has been saving for a new school and a new addition at Vedder elementary.
But a few trustees weren’t convinced they had enough information to move forward with the amendments. Trustee Heather Maahs said she worries they are “robbing Peter to pay Paul” and creating a running deficit.
“Are there things we can do in this budget… to sort of stem the tide?” she asked Slykhuis. She suggested, for example, not purchasing certain vehicles.
Slykhuis explained that the amended budget reflects what has already been spent and is likely to be spent for the rest of the school year. Also, he said, pushing off one-time purchases such as vehicles just pushes the problem further down the road.
He said the time is coming up in the budget process to sit down with the 2021/2022 and “tighten the belt.” Senior staff will be coming to the board with some options.
“We really haven’t had any funding increase for inflation, for years and years,” Slykhuis said. “We’re at the point now where we have to make some fairly deep cuts for next year. There’s some tough decisions ahead, but we built this budget with a look ahead to the future.”
Trustee demands ‘closed-door meeting’
Trustee Darrell Furgason said that he believes the board should have a “closed-door meeting” and take out their pens and make cuts immediately, in the amended budget. However, all budget discussions take place in public budget committee meetings and public regular meetings, as he was told multiple times in the meeting by board chair Willow Reichelt.
Furgason does attend budget meetings. But he says he asked for a meeting with staff and the full board two weeks ago and hasn’t had one yet.
”I have not had any chance to ask any questions of the administration together with the board in that two weeks,” he said. “I asked for information and a meeting.”
After Trustee Jared Mumford reminded Furgason that the process takes place in the budget committee meetings, and at the board table, Furgason insisted on a private meeting.
“We need serious, total board discussion in private before we go public,” Furgason argued. He said they need to go “line by line” and discuss cuts.
Again, Mumford explained that the process was taking place as it usually does.
“We have had two weeks to scrutinize it in our own time,” Mumford said. “I’m not understanding if there are questions why are they not being presented right now in front of the public?”
Furgason, Maahs, Barry Neufeld and David Swankey voted against a third reading. That will be presented to the board at the Feb. 23 meeting.
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