Funding protection extension brings relief for Okanagan school district

Funding protection for Okanagan School District welcome news.

The announcement of three new funding programs for K-12 education in B.C. probably won’t be much benefit to the Okanagan School District, but news that funding protection has been extended comes as welcome news as the district works through its budget planning process.

But the district still faces problems like high utility costs and fewer students each year, a trend expected to continue until 2015.

“Our district still is in funding protection and we still do have enrolment decline and we expect a funding shortfall for the next year,” said Secretary-Treasurer Ron Shongrunden.

The ministry is allocating $10.7 million to help school districts introduce elements of the new B.C. Education Plan, which focuses on personalized learning, flexibility and technology.

“That is separate from districts that are in funding protection, so that is actually extra money,” said Shongrunden. A second program dedicates $11.2 million to vulnerable students, supporting items like meal and snack programs, youth workers and literacy.

“That fund will only apply to districts that are not in funding protection or partially in funding protection. Our district will not see any advantage from that,” said Shongrunden. He also doesn’t expect to see any extra funding coming from the third program, $21.8 million dedicated to levelling costs based on geographic circumstances, as in sparsely populated districts.

But Shongrunden warns funding protection and the small increase in funding in some areas doesn’t mean the school district shouldn’t be expecting to deal with a shortfall for the 2012-13 school budget. He points out that under funding protection, the district only receives 98.5 per cent of last year’s budget and the ministry’s $4.7 billion overall budget is only rising by a small amount, far less than the $43.7 million total for the new programs.

“If you add those numbers together, you can see that not all districts benefit, because the entire budget only went up $4 million,” he said, adding that the amount the district receives per pupil remains unchanged. At least, Shongrunden continued, the shuffling of money in the education ministry’s budget doesn’t look like it affect the overall amount in the local budget.

“We are still getting fewer dollars than last year,” said Superintendent Wendy Hyer, summing up the changes.

“We recognize that certain school districts will face challenges in the coming year, but funding protection measures will help to minimize the impact of declining enrolment,” said B.C. Education Minister George Abbott.

A major problem for the school district is high power costs dealing with local power utilities, costing about $300,000 per year over what districts dealing with B.C. Hydro would pay for the same amount. After input from school trustees, the City of Penticton has frozen rates temporarily, as has Summerland.

“There wasn’t an increase this year and that was a bonus,” said Shongrunden. “Summerland is just as high as Penticton is — No. 1 and 2 in the province — and they are also giving us a freeze.”

Though the Ministry of Education has been apprised of the inequity, a recent letter from the ministry indicated that the district shouldn’t expect any funding relief or rejigging of the funding formula to compensate. Shongrunden said they expect to keep trying.

“For us it’s not a lost cause. I think you will see this district taking up this cause again next year,” he said. “There is nothing saying we can’t keep going back and trying to get some relief from that. I think it’s a good rational explanation we’ve been giving, that has some merit.”

There will be a chance for public input into the budgeting process, with an open meeting scheduled for April 4 at 7 p.m. in the Penticton Secondary Library. After that, community members will also have an opportunity to complete an online survey.

“We will have our surveys online in the beginning of April,” said board chair Ginny Manning. “In the past couple of years, we’ve had some good ideas and input . We take all those and that becomes part of budget process.”