Okanagan Skaha School District board chair Ginny Manning and secretary-treasurer Ron Shongrunden put their heads together at a special meeting  in December where a separate provincial funding issue was discussed.

Okanagan Skaha School District board chair Ginny Manning and secretary-treasurer Ron Shongrunden put their heads together at a special meeting in December where a separate provincial funding issue was discussed.

Okanagan school trustees protest cut

Trustees join with counterparts to complain about what they view as an $18-million cut to B.C.’s education system

School trustees in Penticton are joining with counterparts elsewhere to complain about what they view as an unannounced, $18-million cut to B.C.’s education system.

At issue is so-called holdback funding the Education Ministry disburses periodically during school years to cover unforeseen enrolment increases. In the past, any cash left over at the end of the year has also been distributed to B.C.’s 60 school districts for operating expenses.

That totalled about $200,000 last year for the Okanagan Skaha School District, although officials are less optimistic now since part of this year’s holdback will go to facilities grants earmarked specifically for building improvements.

The district has learned that of the $26 million in holdback funding available this spring, $16 million will be used for 2013-14 annual facilities grants. Another $2 million was redirected in December to the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association.

That, officials claim, adds up to an $18-million cut to the $4.7-billion education budget promised by the B.C. government.

“We firmly believe that all the money that’s held back should go to districts, directly to districts, by the end of the year,” Trustee Ginny Manning said at Monday’s school board meeting.

Trustees voted at the meeting to join with districts in Kamloops and the Lower Mainland in a letter-writing campaign to the education minister. Manning, who chairs the local board, said she’s also concerned that government hasn’t consulted with school districts on important funding changes.

“We’re hearing the announcements publicly after you guys are in a lot of cases,” she told reporters.  “We’re not part of the process (and) it just seems to be happening again and again and again.”

Education Ministry spokesperson Matt Silver said in a statement that districts were informed about the reallocation of holdback funds via letters, emails and a conference call, and noted that all of the holdback money is still flowing into the education system.

He explained that converting holdback funding to pre-payment of 2013-14 annual facilities grants will allow districts to get a jump-start on maintenance work this summer.

“By doing this, it gives both the ministry and boards of education better flexibility to plan and manage budget pressures for the upcoming school year. Specifically for boards, it allows their districts to plan and pursue maintenance work earlier and do more in the summer months when students are out of school,” he said.

The reduction in available holdback funding isn’t expected to seriously harm the Okanagan Skaha School District’s financial position.

Secretary-treasurer Ron Shongrunden told Monday’s meeting that the district doesn’t budget for the holdback funds because the cash isn’t guaranteed. He also said the district is currently projected to finish this school year with a budget surplus of “a few hundred thousand” dollars.

Shongrunden noted, however, that the district is facing a funding shortfall of $661,000 for next year and that figure could grow once more calculations are completed ahead of Wednesday’s public budget meeting.

The annual event, meant to explain the district’s finances, outline upcoming budget challenges and collect public input, is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Penticton Secondary School library. For those unable to attend, the district also has a budget survey on its website at www.sd67.bc.ca.