Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A routine deficit budget story

The volume of Ontario 2009-10 school board budget deficit stories is only going to keep getting louder as the next two months unfold. Ontario boards have to file a balanced budget with the Ministry of Education by June 30 or they risk being taken over by a ministry appointee and losing control of their board. Today / Wednesday's story from Owen Sound is disappointing-- especially given some solid reporting there recently given the issues of transparency and accountability exposed through letters and resignations. We learn immediately the deficit in draft budget is slightly over $4 million, on a total budget of $185.6 million.
However we have to read well into the story before learning what is being cut in the budget and where the pressures are-- and even then the explanation is poor. The board is pegged to lose five per cent of its students over the summer due to declining enrolment. In a per-pupil, student-teacher ratio staffed system, it's to be expected the budget would include reductions in staffing on teacher, educational assistant and classroom support positions because these are all staffed based on the number of pupils. Fewer pupils = fewer staff = less grant = lower classroom salary budget lines. I don't see this as being a "budget cut," as the level of service (IE: the number of staff per class/school) should remain consistent if the board is staffing per the required ratios. The only unknowns, maybe, are how many retirements are expected and how many layoff notices may need to be issued.
(Treasurer Brenda) Booth said there are “still a number of unknowns” with the 2009-10 budget because not all costs are in, staff numbers have not been finalized “and there a huge differential between the benchmarks provided by the ministry for staffing and actual costs."
This issue has been dealt with and the ministry should be providing the board with an adjustment grant so that its revenues match expenditures and the board is given enough to cover the experience ratings within the salary grid matched to its actual staff. If the board doesn't have these dollars, it's because they haven't plugged a number in somewhere to their spreadsheet.
The true story here is about the other shortfalls -- aside the three IDd by the ministry which are textbooks, computers and staff development. These reductions come from the ministry and boards have known since earlier this year their expenses need to match.
Professional services has a large gap and so does office staff. So is it because these professionals' staffing levels haven't been adjusted in eras of fewer students?
The office staff one confuses me, unless the board is overspending on its central administration. School office staff are funded by a grant outside the per-pupil formula, ensuring every school regardless of size has full-time office staff.
Of course, most annoyingly of all, five people showed up for this first-ever public input meeting on a budget. This annoys the hell out of this reporter and I'm shocked to see it happening in this board, where parents, staff and others have been complaining about a lack of openness and accountability. So on one hand you want all that openness but when the door is finally thrown open and you're invited to a public input session on the budget, five people make the effort?