The Surrey Board of Education has balanced its operating budget for the 2015-2016 school year

Surrey balances school budget

Strike savings, last year's cuts help district dodge shortfall for coming school year.

While last year was a painful one for the Surrey School District, trustees have balanced the preliminary operating budget for the coming school year without making any drastic cuts to staff, programs or student services.

For the current year, the school district faced a shortfall of about $9 million and was forced to lay off staff, cut others’ hours and not fill vacated positions. Nearly 50 teachers who left were not replaced, meaning schools had to adhere much more strictly to class size restrictions this year.

Trustee Shawn Wilson, chair of the Surrey Board of Education, says those cutbacks helped ease the pain in drafting the 2015-2016 budget.

“The cuts we made last year, they carried on into the current year,” he said. “You take a bloodbath one year and then the following year, it’s a little bit easier.”

Also making things more manageable, he said, was that the district was frugal earlier this year, unsure what dollars would be coming from the provincial government.

With much financial uncertainty following the teachers’ strike that put off the start of school and caused a delay in getting funding details from the province, the district tightened its belt and limited spending.

“They started out saying boards could retain some of it (the strike savings) and then they got to a point in September and said boards would get none of it. It wasn’t really certain what was going to happen,” Wilson said.

In the end, Surrey received about $5 million in strike compensation, which helped  build a surplus of about $8.7 million to put toward the coming school year.

Trustees acknowledged that relying on such surpluses isn’t sustainable.

“One-time surpluses funds can’t be relied upon to support ongoing programs,” said Trustee Terry Allen, who chair’s the board’s budget committee.

The school district’s operating budget for 2015-16 is $618 million. The operating budget, which covers costs such as wages, benefits, resources and maintenance, is separate from the capital budget, which pays for physical buildings and land.

The operating budget is based on a projected enrolment of 69,500 students in Surrey public schools this fall – an increase of 200 from this year.

About 86 per cent of the budget pays for instructional and classroom support, while 11 per cent goes to maintenance and operations, two per cent is spent on administration and one per cent on transportation.

Staffing levels are expected to remain relatively steady come fall. However, while there will be 35 new Education Assistants (EAs), there are 13 to 14 fewer multicultural workers and SWIS (Settlement Workers in School) – a federally funded program that’s set to expire next year.

The district will receive $593 million in operating grants from the province – which includes a $3.5-million mandated reduction in administrative costs. Funding from district revenue sources, such as facility rentals and international student fees, will add another $19 million or so to the Surrey budget.

By law, school districts must submit a balanced operating budget by June 30 of each year, although adjustments may be made when final students numbers are tallied at the end of September.