School District No. 46 trustees voted to adopt the 2021 amended budget at a regular board meeting Feb. 10, with changes revealing the impact of COVID-19 on the district.
The budget, initially adopted last June, is typically amended towards the end of the budget cycle to reflect changes over the year.
At $56 million, the budget increased by $5.2 million, with increases to the Classroom Enhancement Fund and federal and provincial grants related to COVID-19, among other additions.
Other changes included reduction in enrolment-based funding, the allocation of surplus funds to compensate for that reduction midway through the year, and funding for schools for inclusive education.
At an operations committee meeting on Jan. 26 where the amended budget was presented, secretary treasurer Nicholas Weswick noted enrolment dropped for the first time in five years at the district, to 3,203 from 3,273 last school year.
The lower numbers are likely due to COVID-19, he said.
That “big shift in enrolment levels” resulted in a nearly $2 million reduction in school-age enrolment funding.
Higher enrolment in distributed learning, however, including for the Sunshine Coast Online program designed for the pandemic, translated to an increase of $896,319 for that category.
The school district received one-time enrolment decline funding as a cushion due to the overall drop, as well as funding protection money, totalling about $272,700.
Still, funding levels per pupil remain higher than the provincial average, in part because the rate of students with special needs is “significantly higher” than the provincial average, Weswick told trustees.
But because the province is reviewing its funding model, Weswick said that higher average could put the district at financial risk.
“A risk is that the level of funding for inclusion won’t keep pace with the number of students requiring that additional need,” he said.
Outside of enrolment, the budget saw an increase of about $934,000 for wages and salaries for teachers and $75,000 in mentorship funding for early-career teachers.
An unrestricted surplus of about $2 million is expected to be available for the 2020-21 school year.
Representatives at the meeting also asked about federal funding related to COVID-19.
Sunshine Coast Teachers Association president Jacquie Shelemey said teachers and school communities are concerned that outdoor learning structures to be paid for with federal Safe Return to School funds haven’t been completed.
“There are no structures yet,” she said, even though the worst winter weather is almost through. “It feels like we’re coming out the other end [of the pandemic] and we don’t have any of these things in place.”
Weswick said work behind the scenes has been ongoing, such as selecting design, site location and preparation.
“We didn’t want to see this money go to waste and it was better to have a good decision made than purchase whatever happens to come on the shelf,” he said. “Our principals are concerned with that, and we’ve done whatever we could to try to accelerate the process.”
He said the structures have been ordered and sites selected, while interim supports, such as tents, ponchos and umbrellas have been provided to schools to make it easier to learn outdoors.
Weswick said the board only agreed in October to purchase the structures. “It takes some time to put the plan together and enact it after that.”
At the Feb. 10 regular board meeting trustees also voted on plans to spend the $50,000 holdback funds from the district’s $1.2-million portion of the Safe Return funding.
Building a “phase 2 risk reserve,” preparing sites for outdoor learning structures and purchasing custodial equipment and cleaning supplies were listed as priorities.