$8M bite taken out of final schools budget

Trustee Mike McKay officially passed a final budget of $83,001,819 for the 2013/14 school year at the Jan. 15 school board meeting.

It’s in a different format from last year, but the total is about $8 million less because the district was given money to help pay down the Cowichan Place loan and that one-time funding is no longer available, according to district secretary-treasurer Bob Harper.

The district submitted, as required, a balanced budget to the education ministry late last spring but that now it has to be tweaked to reflect real life in the Cowichan Valley school district, Harper said.

"The original budget figures are estimated on data available in March of the previous year. But, come September, we get our actual enrolment from the ministry. They re-jig the numbers and tell us what we are actually going to get for the year based on enrolment," he said.

McKay agreed. "Everything that happens in May is hypothetical because until we know how many students are actually enrolled, it’s a best guess," he said.

Harper explained that he views the budget process as firing at "a continually moving target" because "we don’t know ahead of time what our Hydro bill is going to be for the end of the month, or for the year. It depends on whether the temperature goes up or down. And that’s without any of the surprises we get in terms of rate adjustments."

By the time the district reaches January, a lot of concrete data has been collected.

"We can refine the budget based on what we know of enrolment, what our staffing costs are, and what our estimates are for the rest of the year."

Then assistant secretary-treasurer Jason Sandquist talked about some specific changes.

"This is a consolidated budget. Previously we just showed the budget of the operating fund but that includes our capital and special purpose funds now. Our operating budget is actually much less than that.

"We made a significant investment to increase our international student revenue and the number of students that have arrived this year exceeded our estimate last May. Of course with that we also increased our expenditures because you can’t increase this revenue without hiring additional services overseas. There are costs for staffing, commissions and agents," he said.

Sandquist also pointed out that the district has not raised as much cash from bus fees as originally expected and some grant money has also been adjusted downward.

"On the expenditure side, CUPE and USE workers will now be receiving the increases negotiated in their contracts. That has to come out of this year’s budget so our expenditures will now reflect those, too," he said.

In staffing, the budget has had to be changed to reflect more absenteeism this year.

"Also in our utilities we were expecting to have a biomass boiler installed at Lake Cowichan a little earlier. It won’t be in until the end of March or April so that means there will be more expense for heating oil. We’ve also increased our budget for diesel fuel; what we’re actually spending exceeds what we had in the budget," he said.

Sandquist concluded by saying that this balanced budget includes "all the surplus that we had in the budget from last year as well."

Discussions will get underway soon about the budget for the next school year, 2014/15.

It was a decision to send in an unbalanced budget in 2012 that led to the removal of the previously elected board of school trustees in the Cowichan Valley district.