The provincial budget revealed this week in Victoria will present some challenges for school districts around B.C. for the 2021-22 school year. (File photo)

Mixed response to provincial budget funding for Central Okanagan schools

Central Okanagan School District finance and audit committee grapples with fiscal challenges facing 2021-22 school year

Provincial government funding won’t meet 2021-22 fiscal challenges facing the Central Okanagan School District, says a recommendation to the board of education from the finance and audit committee.

Committee member Moyra Baxter, chair of the Central Okanagan Board of Education, said a lack of committed funding for COVID-related expenses in the fall, concerns about inflation on operating costs and impact felt by diminished revenues from the international student program figure into her concerns.

“The board has to make a public statement with regard to these issues,” Baxter said.

Speaking at Wednesday’s committee meeting, Central Okanagan Public Schools superintendent/CEO Kevin Kaardal said the recent provincial budget offered some positives and negatives for all school districts.

Specifically to Central Okanagan public schools, Kaardal said the provincial government is largely maintaining the status quo on operational expenses, but adding very little in terms of actual new funding.

On the capital project side, Kaardal applauded the $3.1 billion in funding for replacement and new schools, along with $5.6 million for asset upgrades and maintenance, and $20 million for playground equipment program, both which could impact local schools.

“That $3.1 billion of capital funding, that is very good. I have seen years where that funding has been down around $400 million,” he said.

Another negative is the province’s hold-back on funding for COVID-related costs on the expectation that classes will resume in September without any additional pandemic health safety requirements for schools, something the committee members and Kaardal both felt was unrealistic.

“I think we are still going to be dealing with this pandemic next September,” said Baxter.

This current school year, school districts received federal and provincial funding to address those anticipated one-time concerns, but no such commitment has been made yet for the 2021-22 school year even though unspent money is available to be allocated by the ministry of education.

While other school districts this week are reported to be facing huge deficits, Kaardal said that is largely because of the dependence on international student funding, where COVID has impacted on program enrolment.

“Many school districts, such as Coquitlam, have larger programs that we do with expectations of generating up to $35 million from their programs, but with travel restrictions they are not able to meet those revenue projections,” Kaardal said.

“They use that money to supplement other programs, but without that funding they can’t afford to do those things anymore. That is why you are hearing those concerns about funding.”

Kaardal described the Central Okanagan international student program as boutique in nature, meaning while the revenue provides otherwise unfunded services and programs, the overall dependence on the budget is not as impactful as some other school districts.

Susan Bauhart, president of the Central Okanagan Teachers Association, complemented the Central Okanagan Public Schools administration for its budget planning, noting the “gloom and doom I am hearing from other school districts is not the case here.”

“You have to give credit were credit is due. It looks to me like the school district has done a pretty good job,” Bauhart said. “But I know it is not ideal, and yes, I know we need more funding.”

Bauhart said that more funding needs to be directed to counselling and mental health, social and emotional learning challenges facing students today.

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