School district needs funding certainty: chair

School board chair Rhonda Pauls said there are worries per-pupil funding will decrease due to provincial budget pressures.

Abbotsford school board chair Rhonda Pauls

School districts need more information about the future of education funding in British Columbia, according to Abbotsford board of education chair Rhonda Pauls.

After originally facing a $4 million shortfall, the Abbotsford school district passed a budget that, through a variety of cuts, will see a deficit of $800,000.

That money will come from the district’s accumulated surplus, which is expected to stand at around $7 million after the year.

Several other school districts have faced similar deficits, including Vancouver, where the board failed to pass a budget after facing a shortfall of $24 million.

Pauls told The News that while Abbotsford’s immediate budget crunch has been resolved, districts need to know how the government plans to continue funding education over the next several years, especially if enrolment levels start to increase again.

Last year, the province saw public school enrolment increase for the first time in years. Next year, Abbotsford is projecting 170 more students. School districts are allocated money for students from the province on a per-pupil basis.

“When our enrolment starts to increase, the uncertainty we have is whether the government will keep the same funding level when we see thousands of more kids in British Columbia or will they reduce our per-pupil funding and we need to do more with the same amount of money?” Pauls said.

Recent years have seen the province force districts to cut administrative costs, while requiring them to also pick up the tab for mandated internet infrastructure improvements.

“Everybody has kind of whittled their pot down, trying to get through this, but in the future, if we have the formula changed so the per-pupil funding goes down, that’s where our real challenges are coming down,” Pauls said.

Asked if that’s a possibility, she said:

“I think we’re all thinking it. It’s the thing nobody wants to believe is going to happen, but when you’re a realist you start saying, ‘Where’s the money going to come from?’ ”

Pauls said the district has spoken to the ministry about funding challenges, and hopes to be heard. At the same time, the province is headed for a new election next spring, meaning it’s unlikely the province would announce cuts to education funding before voters head to the polls.

“It’s always interesting in an election year because people want to say the things that will get them re-elected.”

Still, Pauls said districts need to know what their budgets may look like in the years to come, should the present government stay in power.

“We would like a heads up,” she said. “All we know is more kids are coming and we don’t know if more money is coming.”

Asked about education funding, Abbotsford South MLA Darryl Plecas said: “I am not aware of any expectation by the government that they will be decreasing funding in education.”