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Burnaby trustees approve staff cuts to balance school district budget

Longtime trustee says board 'agonized' over every line of 2021/22 financial plan
Photo: Empty classroom/iStock

The Burnaby school board has cut the equivalent of nearly 27 teaching positions and 22 support staff to balance its 2021/22 budget in the face of anticipated lingering impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Longtime trustee Larry Hayes said it wasn’t the most agonizing budget process he’s gone through during his 19 years as a board member – but it was “certainly up there.”

“All of us as trustees agonized over every line, over every item where there were cuts because we know it’s affecting supplies, programs, children and staff,” Hayes said after the budget passed at a public board meeting Tuesday.

In the end, chair Jen Mezei said the district ended up with the right financial plan in a difficult time.

“I think where we landed is where we needed to be,” she said.

The school district faced a projected $12.4-million budget shortfall next year, mostly because of pandemic-related factors, like international student enrolment, which dropped off a cliff at the beginning of COVID-19 and is not expected to rebound nearly as quickly, according to the school district.

Regular enrolment is also expected to stay flat next year after a drop during the pandemic, and the school district hasn’t been able to rent out its facilities like it did before COVID.

Investment income is also expected to be down.

Mezei noted the federal and provincial governments kicked in extra funding for districts to deal with pandemic-related expenses this year but no such announcements have been made for next year.

“We will continue to advocate and take advantage of any financial relief directed to school districts,” she said.

The cuts carved more than $5.6 million out of the anticipated shortfall with the rest being covered by the district’s $13 million in accumulated reserve funds.

Even with the cuts, however, the district is now on track to wipe out its reserves by the end of the 2022/23 school year, according to current projections.

Trustees Hayes and Ryan Stewart noted the role international student fees have played in the district’s financial challenges during the pandemic.

International enrolment dropped from 1,480 in 2019/20 to 830 this year, for a loss of $11.7 in revenue.

Next year, the district expects 950 international students, still a fraction of its normal international student enrolment.

Hayes said the pandemic has opened the board’s eyes to how “fragile” that source of funding is and pointed to the board’s choice to start setting aside a contingency fund several years ago.

“It would have been nice to have that five times bigger than what it was, but it certainly did its part to offset some of the reductions we had to make,” he said.

Stewart echoed Hayes’ concerns.

“It will remain something we cannot control, and that is going to leave aspects of our system vulnerable to the extent that we fund what I think we would all agree are critical programs and services through these ‘extra’ dollars,” he said.

Mezei said balancing the budget this year – something school boards are legally obligated to do – required some difficult decisions but the board tried to focus on keeping the cuts where they would have “the least possible impact on students, staff and families, and especially vulnerable students and students with diverse abilities and disabilities.”

Follow Cornelia Naylor on Twitter @CorNaylor