Jason Sandquist, district secretary-treasurer, talks to trustees about the budget. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)

Jason Sandquist, district secretary-treasurer, talks to trustees about the budget. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)

60 new teachers, 55 new classrooms coming to Cowichan in 2017/18

Cowichan Valley board of education is ready to move ahead with budget for 2017/18

Public schools in the Cowichan Valley are in for big changes by September 2017.

Sixty new teachers and 55 new classrooms will be needed to bring the school district in line with new province wide guidelines, agreed after B.C.’s teachers won a Supreme Court decision about class size and composition.

Cowichan Valley school trustees gave first and second reading April 27, to a 2017/18 budget of $92,468,095. Third reading was scheduled for after press time.

The only trustee who did not approve of it immediately was Cathy Schmidt, who, as is her invariable annual practice, wanted to take time to go through the budget document with a fine tooth comb to see if she could find ways to direct even more of the funds into classrooms.

As is usual with school district funds, most of the staggering amount of money is already pre-allocated, and it’s only been a few years since several school closures, so the board of education has only a relatively small amount of room to change gears. A week before they saw this balanced budget, they were basically wrestling with a shortfall of $979,244: which is 1.3 per cent of the operating total.

The big difference this year is that the budget is up because of the money the provincial government has been forced to spend, following the Supreme Court ruling last year about class size and composition rules. And those retroactive changes are forcing districts across the province to scramble for space.

District Secretary-treasurer Jason Sandquist explained to trustees recently that a “best guess” scenario will mean 29 additional classrooms for district elementary schools, which will mean the bringing in of some portables.

“Not every school has space; we need to reclaim classroom space where we can,” he said, pointing out that Crofton and Drinkwater will get one portable each.

“Cowichan Secondary has the highest pressure. They need 11 classrooms. They will need six more portable classrooms,” he said.

Schmidt asked Sandquist if that meant the application for a new high school to replace Cowichan Secondary would have to be altered.

“It’s getting full in there,” she said.

Sandquist explained that the timeline is really tight for getting capital requirements to the education ministry, and that 25 extra secondary school classrooms were going to be required in September across the district.

“It’s a very complicated puzzle. This is our best guess,” he said.

Another challenge facing the district is that, out of the $409,405 coming from the province to assist with the relocation of students, about $186,000 must be used to cover the anticipated costs of teachers who are absent during the year.

Board chair Candace Spilsbury said the district had been “astonished” to discover, while the budget was in its last stages, that a good chunk of this supposed support money was already earmarked.

“To have to spend that on absenteeism is very difficult,” she said.

Sandquist agreed, saying, “A lot of ideas were thought of till we found out about that.”

But, once they’d looked at what had been prepared, the board was impressed at the broad-based effort, especially for the district’s increasing number of students with special needs.

But several of the board, including Trustee Rob Hutchins and Trustee Elizabeth Croft, wondered whether more could be done for them with the funds available.

Trustee Joe Thorne said, “My concern is for the students: they need help. I have to stand by what the staff has put together here.”

Spilsbury could feel frustration among her colleagues, especially about funding special needs education.

“I’m also feeling rushed,” she said. “Whenever the ministry has a new initiative, it always seems to have a fast turnaround. I know our staff has tried to adjust to that, working long hours and weekends. We all wish we had significantly more money in this area but I’m confident that support for special needs is there. I will support this.”