North Vancouver school trustees passed a revised $190.4 million budget Wednesday night that restored funding for existing learning support teachers, and even added some cash for additional specialist teacher positions.
Wednesday night’s unanimous 11th hour budget approval came a week after trustees defeated a previous version of the budget that had contemplated cutting six learning support teachers and a half time counsellor position in a 3-3 tie vote.
Parents of special needs students who showed up to Wednesday’s meeting also voiced concerns about the possible cuts and urged the board to reconsider.
“I find it very disturbing to find the board is considering cutting funding that would impact the most vulnerable children in the district,” said parent Scott Holburn. “It doesn’t matter how fast your computers are. Education begins with educators.”
A revised budget approved by the board reinstated the six learning support teachers, and added two more. The revised budget also added funding for two more teachers which would allow two vice-principals to do learning support work.
In a presentation to trustees, school district staff outlined how those positions would be funded by a combination of cuts to other areas, and drawing on accumulated surplus.
The cuts include chopping $120,000 from a computer replacement program, by limiting options available to teachers, cutting a $36,000 online employee “wellness” program, cutting $57,000 from library services by changing the way books are catalogued, taking $10,000 from the trustee expense budget, and $7,600 from the budget for conferences and professional development.
Total cuts come to about $259,000. The remaining $790,000 cost of the specialist teachers will funded by surplus.
Superintendent Mark Pearmain told trustees there is a good chance the province will provide funding for six to eight of the specialist teacher positions in the fall. But he warned trustees the funding isn’t guaranteed.
Trustee Jessica Stanley said that was a risk worth taking. “I’m greatly concerned about reductions to learning support teachers,” she said, adding, “We need to do our best to ensure the needs of our students are being met.”
Trustee Barry Forward agreed. “I haven’t heard anything to convince me that taking a risk is a bad idea,” he said. “We as a board have to take care of our vulnerable students.”
Trustee Cyndi Gerlach voiced concern about throwing financial caution to the wind, saying that choosing to pay for extra specialist teachers now could leave future boards either forced choose between layoffs or further cutbacks if the school district burned through its accumulated surplus.
Secretary-treasurer Georgia Allison warned that if the province chose not to fund the specialist teacher positions, the board could be facing a significant deficit within three years.
Much of the budget discussion in the last two years has stemmed from changes to the way the provincial government pays for teachers, which has prioritized money for regular classroom teachers over specialists who work as counsellors, English Language teachers and experts who support students with special needs.
In response to questions from trustees, Pearmain said other factors are also likely to impact future budgets, including a revised funding formula expected from the province and a new round of teachers’ contract negotiations.
The revised budget for the upcoming school year also contains provision for hiring of 30 additional educational assistants, with confirmation of $1.5 million more from the province.
The North Vancouver school district’s operating budget for the next school year is about $153.7 million. Of that, about $136 million will be spent on salaries and benefits. About $67 million will go towards teacher salaries.