A $4 million mistake in the proposed 2012-13 school district budget has obscured a $2.3 million drop in teachers' salary costs projected for next year.
The document, presented to the school board for approval Tuesday by secretary-treasurer Maureen Carradice, contained what looked like an anticipated $4 million decrease in support staff salaries next year.
Carradice explained to the Times Wednesday that that decrease was actually a "misclassification."
"Support staff salaries were included in the wrong columns and this has been fixed," she wrote to the Times in an email.
That shift, however, then revealed a projected $2.3 million decrease for teachers' salaries next year, and Carradice later confirmed there would be a significant reduction in average teacher salary and benefits costs.
"Given that we have almost 700 teachers, that explains the $2.3 million difference," she wrote.
At Tuesday's meeting, however, no one on the board raised any questions about the dramatic $4 million decrease projected for support staff salaries, and no mention was made of an anticipated $2.3 million decrease in teachers' salaries.
When the motion was made to approve the budget, Chair Louise Piper and trustees Doug McKay, Barry Neufeld and Walt Krahn voted to pass it that night after its first public presentation.
Trustees Silvia Dyck, Martha Wiens and Heather Maahs, however, were opposed.
"Because our budget consultation was not open to the public, because the preliminary budget was presented in a closed finance and facilities meeting, because our agenda has not been made available for public scrutiny with the budget in it until today, I am opposed to passing this right now," Maahs said.
Speaking to the Times Friday, board finance chair Doug McKay said he was disappointed the $4 million clerical error slipped past the finance department, the superintendent and all seven trustees.
"I'm not going to make excuses for any of us, but mistakes happen," he said. "I'm glad someone noticed it and brought it to our attention."
Someone at the meeting would likely have asked for an explanation about the projected $2.3 decrease in teachers' salaries if the mistake had not been made, he said, especially given the ongoing labour dispute between teachers and the provincial government
He said he has since discussed the matter with finance director James Richards, however, and been told that the decrease in anticipated teacher salary costs is the result of a change in district accounting practices this year and won't affect the actual number of teachers or their pay.
"It makes you wonder about the shell game," said CTA president Katharin Midzain responding to news of the $4 million clerical error and the projected decrease in teacher salary costs.
She said she is "suspicious" of new provincial reporting requirements for districts.
"I know that this district very closely follows the guidelines set for them by the ministry . . . but it makes me wonder what the guidelines being set are."
Further muddying the waters on the proposed budget is that projected figures for 2012-13 are compared to figures from the unamended 2011-12 budget.
Until this year, the district has always used the amended figures from the current year to compare to projected figures for the upcoming budget.
Had amended figures been used in the 2012-13 budget presented at Tuesday's meeting, it would have shown a $257,080 decrease in the district's total operating expenses next year instead of a $2.2 million increase. It would also have shown only a $355,677 increase in provincial operating grants instead of an increase of more than $2 million.
That too can be explained by a change in reporting, McKay said, but trustees didn't know about that before they were presented with the budget Tuesday.
"To know that we had changed our accounting practice would have been valuable information," McKay said.
Despite that lack of discussion this year, however, he said the new accounting practices being put in place by the district are a good thing and will make budget projections more accurate in the future.
That being said, he will be asking for clarification from staff when the proposed budget comes to the board for final approval next week.