British Columbia

Many B.C. school districts forecasting major budget shortfalls

The Surrey school district is projecting a $43 million deficit, while those in Vancouver, Richmond and Victoria are also bracing for multi-million-dollar shortfalls.

The combination of pandemic pressures and fewer students may mean deep cuts for some districts

Many school districts in B.C. are projecting multi-million-dollar shortfalls for the 2021-2022 year, largely blaming budget pressures on the pandemic. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Several school districts in B.C. are grappling with significant budget shortfalls for the 2021-2022 year, after an unprecedented year of pandemic-disrupted plans and fewer students.

In Surrey, the district is projecting a $43-million shortfall, blaming the massive figure on the pandemic and its resulting border closure, reduction in immigration, and a decrease in student enrolment numbers.

"We have also seen a decrease in facility rental revenue, increased costs due to blended learning and reduced enrolment of international students and related revenue," said Ritinder Matthew with the Surrey School District.

Matthew said the district also hired more than 130 caretakers as part of its enhanced health and safety protocols.

In Vancouver, documents show the school district is expecting a $4.3-million shortfall, while in Richmond and Victoria, it's $7.5 million and $7.3 million, respectively. 

Possible cuts on the horizon

The shortfalls could mean cuts, though the budget process is still underway.

"When budgets aren't sufficient and when cuts have to be made, those who really suffer are children, and they tend to be the most vulnerable children that need the most supports," said Teri Mooring, president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation.

In Surrey, teachers are bracing for what the shortfall might mean for jobs. 

"There are always concerns for employees whenever the employer is talking about deficits and the need to cut costs," said Matt Westphal, president of the Surrey Teachers' Association.

Westphal said, however, they've been told staffing levels will be addressed through retirements, rather than layoffs.

"They're anticipating staffing to go down next year, but it's not by a great amount, and they're hoping to address it through attrition," he said.

Increase in operating grants

According to the B.C. Ministry of Education, districts are set to get an increase of $234 million next school year through operating grants.

The provincial government normally releases its budget in February, but this year it has been delayed until later this month, adding to planning challenges for school districts.

"Many boards of education unfortunately can't wait until April 20 to start building their budgets, because they have a number of contractual obligations in which they are required to plan staffing and let staff know if they are going to be laid off," said Stephanie Higginson, president of the B.C. School Trustees Association.

The Education Ministry sent CBC News a written statement, declining an interview request. It says, in part, that it understands the effect the pandemic has had in terms of decreased enrolment.

"Since 2016-2017 we have increased our investment in public school operations by over $1 billion, demonstrating our commitment to quality public education, and to continually striving for equity of access and outcomes for all learners," said the statement, sent by Craig Sorochan, a senior public affairs officer with the ministry.

With files from Joel Ballard

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