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More students, more money as SD46 begins its preliminary budget for next year

The current year's operating budget is $44,134,632. Here are some of the factors School District 46 is considering in composing the 2023-24 school year budget.
School District No. 46 is beginning preliminary budget discussions for the 2023-24 school year.

As enrolment increases within the Sunshine Coast School District No. 46 (SD46), so does the budget. 

Over the last decade, enrolment in Sunshine Coast schools has increased from a low of 3,040 students in 2015-16 to the current enrolment of 3,389 students. 

“When enrolment is increasing, that's good for our budgets, as we see additional resources coming in,” Nicholas Westwick, the secretary-treasurer for the school district, said during the Nov. 30 consultation meeting regarding the upcoming 2023-24 budget. “There's also, of course, additional costs related to that increasing enrolment as we provide teachers and support staff to serve those students.” 

Breaking down the budget

While the budget for next year is still in the early discussion phase, members of the school district shared SD46’s priorities and assessed risks as it considers funding.

There are three funds within the school district’s budget: operating, capital and special purpose funds. The operating budget is where the school district has the “most discretion around” and can shift priorities. It is primarily driven by the Ministry of Education and operating grants based on student enrolment. Capital budgets are typically set via applications to the Ministry of Education, Westwick explained. Special purpose funds are targeted grants.

As enrolment rates increase in many districts across the province, teachers are in short supply and Westwick noted there is competition for qualified teachers. As of Sept. 2022, there were 257 teachers (233.6 full-time equivalent teacher positions), 215 support staff, 18 principals and vice-principals and 16 management and non-union staff members in the school district. 

The current year’s operating budget comes in at a total of $44,134,632 ($43,062,899 of which is from Ministry of Education block grants). This accounts for approximately $7,885 per pupil in funding. The amended budget for the current year will be submitted in February.

Approximately 85 per cent of the budget is used to cover the salaries and benefits of staff, including teachers, while the remaining 15 per cent addresses services and supplies (including some salaries for positions such as school bus drivers — the SD’s biggest contract), Westwick presented. “We’re definitely a people organization,” he added.

Westwick also addressed comments that the school district is “top heavy” with administrative roles. By comparing SD46 to the 28 other B.C. school districts with fewer than 5,000 students, Westwick found the Sunshine Coast school district spent the lowest percentage (less than 10 per cent) of overall spending on exempt (non-union) principal and vice-principal salaries. The presentation showed teachers’ salaries amounted to $18,594,868 while principal and vice-principal salaries totalled at $2,747,464. Education assistant salaries reached $3,725,854.

Future costs to consider include the transportation contract coming to an end at the conclusion of this school year, and that it will go to market. Food support and sick leave are pressures on the budget, Westwick added, although the province provided $420,000 in one-time funding to support food this year, which he said could set an expectation in the school community. As for COVID-related expenditures, the school district increased ventilation and cleaning in facilities. It is also considering upgrades for failing infrastructure such as the phone and intercom system.

A new requirement of B.C. school districts is to create a multi-year financial plan. Westwick said the board is learning more about what that plan will include within the week, but is expected to include a high-level plan for how to accomplish operational goals. The board will work on the plan for the next six months to a year, while also refreshing its strategic plan.

Risk assessment

The district identified 39 or so risks, many of which will require mitigation. Unfilled absences and frontline positions were identified as the number one risk the school district is facing. Staff burnout and/or mental health issues came in second place on the risk assessment chart, with barriers to inclusion/ resources, culture and training to support diverse learners ranked third, followed by insufficient administrative capacity/lack of organizational capacity. Key employment retention was identified in fifth place in the presentation.

A theme of the current year’s budget, Westwick said, is recruitment and retention as well as recognizing the risks around mental health burnout. Some resources from the budget’s surplus have been put toward refreshing the recruitment strategy — including paying a living wage — and supporting health and safety. 

Superintendent Kate Kerr spoke of the connection between educator wellbeing and student achievement, and the importance of mental health in local education. 

Local decision making

The presenters noted the strategic plan’s values that guide all decisions include social and emotional learning, mental health and inclusive education. SD46 has increased education support for inclusive support teachers, increased school counselors and inclusive education positions, as well as mental health literacy training. 

The district is also in the third year of a three-year pilot program for its inclusion support team. That pilot will be reviewed to consider whether it will be embedded in ongoing budgets.

Amanda Amaral, the board of education’s chair, spoke of the district’s decentralized funding model, which she said gives school boards control and “local autonomy over the spending in their communities.” This, she added, means the board can “make decisions closer to our students” and encourages local leadership.

Two equity deserving groups identified by Westwick’s presentation are Indigenous students and students who have an inclusion designation. Both groups have increasing six-year completion rates, but differ when it comes to the provincial average. While Indigenous students in SD46 usually surpass the provincial average, some of the inclusion designation cohort fall below the average. Digging into local statistics, Kerr explained how data can help identify students who need more support (while acknowledging that completion rates are just one part of measuring student achievement and wellbeing).

Next steps

Provincial budget announcements are expected to be made in the middle of March. “We started early to get as much input as possible [from] as broad a cross-section of the community, staff and stakeholders, and students as possible,” Westwick said.

The school district is asking for feedback and questions about the budget, which can be directed to [email protected]. The budget will continue to be discussed in upcoming operations committee meetings in the new year, with approval anticipated in the spring (after enrolment estimates).