Surrey dodges $4-million school budget deficit

The amount is the same the district must spend on portable classrooms each year.

The Surrey School District has managed to cover an expected $4-million operating budget shortfall for the upcoming school year, but officials say the district wouldn’t be short the money if it didn’t have to spend millions on portables each year.

Rapid enrollment growth for more than 20 years has resulted in many schools being over-capacity, especially in the Clayton, South Newton and South Surrey neighbourhoods, leaving students learning in portable classrooms – outside regular school buildings – until extensions or new schools are funded and built.

About 300 portables are currently in use at local elementary and high schools, which the district must pay about $4 million annually to run. The province provides no special funding for portables and the dollars are diverted from Surrey’s operating budget, which pays for school programs and services.

“We are forever playing catch-up with enrollment and approximately $4 million is effectively skimmed off the top from a very tight budget every year to support our portables and this isn’t recognized in provincial funding,” said Surrey Board of Education chair Shawn Wilson.

As in prior years, the anticipated deficit for the 2016-17 school year is being made up using contingency funds that weren’t spent this year on things like snow removal, as well as with savings from some lower utility costs, unfilled positions and money the district generates through initiatives like facility rentals.

Finding the extra $4 million needed, said Wilson, means existing school programs and services likely won’t have to be cut. But he says trustees remained concerned about the ongoing trend and much-needed new school space in the growing city.

The district already has more than 70,000 students and growth has averaged 1,000 more per year.

“There has been funding assistance provided to districts in recognition of costs associated with declining enrollment, yet we remain with real and substantial costs of managing growth and overcapacity while waiting for capital funding,” said Wilson.

For the upcoming school year, the district plans to hire about 50 more teachers and 100 education assistants to meet the projected enrollment increase of approximately 800 students, including 200 Syrian refugees.

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