(Black Press file photo)

UPDATE: Surrey school district looking at $8.5M bill for portables this year

Trustee says provincial funding won’t cover new costs district facing, including portables, education assistants and more

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with comment from the Ministry of Education

Surrey’s portable bill is set to double this year.

While the Surrey school district typically spends about $4 million a year to maintain existing portable classrooms, the total bill is jumping to $8.5 million this year, Surrey Board of Education vice-chair Terry Allen told the Now-Leader.

The district says the $8.5- million figure includes roughly $2.1 million to move 33 portables (at an estimated $65,000 each), $1.2 million for 11 new portables that are needed, and the remaining approximately $5 million is to be spent on maintenance.

Making matters worse is that there’s not enough new provincial funding to cover the portable increases, according to Allen, among a slew of other new costs including inflation on supplies and services; inflation on employee benefit costs; increased salary and benefits for non-unionized staff; increased demand for education assistant services for special needs students; and increased demand for school meal programs and other services for the most vulnerable students.

“We’re still on the hook for all the inflation, hydro increases… The increase in money isn’t covering all the costs,” Allen said.

OUR VIEW: Big portable promises enticed Surrey votes – so what’s the plan?

Plus, the district remains concerned about the impact of the new Employer Health Tax.

Allen said the only new funding announced is “simply a re-announcement of previous commitments” to fund increased costs of the teachers’ Memorandum of Understanding on class size composition, enrollment growth and unionized salary increases.

“We were hoping, and I think all district were hoping, for some relief for that. But that’s not going to happen, I don’t think. Maybe it will, you never know, but there’s been no relief at this point,” said Allen.

“There’s not much more money coming to districts anyway, but certainly, it won’t cover increased costs in portables.”

Allen said the district will be able to survive this year’s spike, due to a “funding balance” from previous years. According to a Feb. 14 report to the Surrey Board of Education, the “operating fund balance” will be drawn down to $15.1 million on June 30 to cover a $21-million shortfall in the 2017-18 budget.

“They call it a surplus, but we call it a funding balance. Without that, we would be having to make cuts – and deep cuts,” stressed Allen. “You can only absorb so much.”

See more: Surrey school board says it’s in good financial shape despite $21M shortfall

See also: Surrey must create 168 new classrooms, hire 300 teachers by September (April 28, 2017)

Spokesman Doug Strachan said the district received in the neighbourhood of $700 million in operating funding from the province last year. While this year’s operating funding figure has yet to be finalized, Strachan said Allen is correct and all the things he listed are “not being funded.”

The district received $10.77 million from the province in 2017 to purchase 38 of the 50 required portables, as well as relocating and refurbishing three more, and renovating 21 classrooms.

But this year, “we have to pay for (the portables) on our own as we have in the past,” said Strachan.

In an emailed statement to the Now-Leader, the Ministry of Education said a budget has been tabled that is the “largest” capital budget in the province to date.

“Operating grants for school districts in 2018/2019 are set to increase to almost $5.2 billion – up over $130 million from 2017/2018,” reads the statement. “Surrey is expected to receive an estimated increase of $22.4 million in operating funding next school year, bringing the total to $650 million for 2018/19. This is in addition to $37 million provided to the district through the classroom enhancement fund.”

According to the ministry, the Surrey school district will also see additional savings of $2.7 million in 2018/2019 through MSP reductions, network savings and reduced pension contributions.

“We are reviewing the district’s five-year capital plan and we are working closely with the Capital Project Office in Surrey to accelerate the pace of school construction from green light to ground breaking,” the statement notes. “This is a transitional year as districts work to implement the Memorandum of Agreement with the BCTF and there are some unique situations and challenges. One of those challenges has been an increase in the number of portables this fall as districts increase class spaces to comply with the MOA. We are committed to making sure the use of portables to address growth pressures is not a long-term solution.”

Surrey currently has about 325 portable classrooms.

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