After drop in student enrolment amid COVID-19, HWDSB budget deficit is 'very likely'

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board hopes to find $2.8 million and avoid a budget deficit after learning there are 1,756 fewer students enrolled than anticipated during the COVID-19 pandemic. But avoiding a deficit is unlikely.

At least 42 full-time educators will be moved to long-term occasional positions for now

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School board is looking at a shortfall because of the students who've unenrolled because of COVID-19. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board hopes to find $2.8 million and avoid a budget deficit after learning there are 1,756 fewer students enrolled than anticipated during the COVID-19 pandemic — but escaping a deficit is unlikely.

The board says about 400 have shifted and 866 are in kindergarten. There's also some 490 students who aren't listed as attending class for various reasons including communication issues with the board.

That means a drop of $15.9 million in grant money in a budget based on enrolment numbers on Oct. 30 and later on March 31, 2021.

Alex Johnstone, board chair, says school boards have run deficits before, and HWDSB will do what it can to be financially savvy while also prioritizing student safety.

"School boards, especially here in Hamilton, have been placed in the most difficult position ... we have the province who forced school boards to use our own funds, which we did do here in Hamilton, drawing on our own $9 million from reserves, and despite that ... it still was not enough," she said during an HWDSB finance and facilities committee said in a meeting Thursday.

"I'm also mindful of the fact that as we plan for our spring budget, we will very likely be looking at a deficit and I think that is a reality our board will have to start to prepare for."

Alex Johnstone is the chairperson for Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. She said the board should prepare to operate on a deficit this year. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

If the board made no effort to save money, the deficit would be about $15.9 million.

To try to reduce the impact, the board will put 33 full-time teachers and nine designated early childhood educators into long-term occasional positions for the time being, board staff told the committee. Those teachers will keep their status as full-time employees. The board will also shift around educational assistants and find other ways to limit expenses.

The other big move is using $6 million of its reserve funds to help reduce class sizes (it previously set aside $9 million for this purpose). 

That brings the deficit to $2.8 million — but the number of students enrolled isn't finalized yet, which means the budget outlook could be better or worse depending on if there are more or even fewer students.

"The numbers will shift a little bit even into next week," Dawn Danko, vice-chair of the board, said in an interview Friday. 

The 1,756 fewer students is forcing another massive reorganization within the board that will force classes to change and teachers to move around the system.

"This is a hard time for staff when your position is shifting, your teaching assignment is shifting and it's a hard time for families. .. Your child is in school, they've gotten invested into this new normal, they know the teacher, connected with them and now we're going to change that. And there's public health concerns that we're mixing up the cohorts," she said.

"It's important to remember we signalled back in August this was going to have to happen and had to delay it due to the delayed school start and who wanted to be in remote and who wanted to be in-person."

Right now, the committee also projects class averages will be roughly 21 students. On paper appears to be the same, but educators across the board are saying their class sizes are growing. Danko says that is an indication class averages were beneath 21 students before the board realized 1,756 students weren't attending school.

Johnstone said she plans to write a letter appealing to the Ford government for more money.

She also hopes the board can receive more guidance on how to spend the $9 million in reserve funds which are allocated to help HWDSB in light of the pandemic.

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About the Author

Bobby Hristova


Bobby Hristova is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email: bobby.hristova@cbc.ca


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