Looking for logos: With the new school district administration building in the background, District Parent Advisory Council executive Kari Wilkinson, Pearl Hiemstra and Heather Hamlin Gravells want to see changes, including decal identification on all school district vehicles.

Looking for logos: With the new school district administration building in the background, District Parent Advisory Council executive Kari Wilkinson, Pearl Hiemstra and Heather Hamlin Gravells want to see changes, including decal identification on all school district vehicles.

DPAC wants top-down cuts to school district budget

Parents concerned about expenses and ‘fancy’ vehicles in light of cuts to student services.

Members of the District Parents Advisory Council have come up with their own ideas for making the $1.8 million cuts needed to balance School District #83’s budget – and they are wielding sharp pencils and not shying away from controversial topics.

“Parents have had enough,” says Kari Wilkinson, who became president of the District Parents Advisory Council (DPAC) earlier this month.

Upset about the school district’s proposed budget cuts, the DPAC decided to present its own version to school district trustees and administration at a meeting last week.

“I think it’s fair to say the reaction included raised eyebrows and ruffled feathers,” says Wilkinson.

Glenn Borthistle, district superintendent, says the board values the public input it has received, both in meetings with the DPAC and the various employee groups, as well as the response from parents and the general public in the form of letters or phone calls.

“We have received a lot of feedback and a lot of fair comment. The district and board will be reviewing all the submissions as part of our budget process which will continue right up to the meeting on May 12.”

That is the date when the school board is expected to vote on the final budget options. Currently, more cuts have been suggested than needed, so some of the proposed cutbacks will be reinstated in this year’s budget.

“We are following up on everything to look at how to tighten up what we are doing,” says Bobbi Johnson, school board chair.

Wilkinson says parents on the DPAC think there needs to be more accountability and transparency when it comes to the budget process and expenses. She worked with the DPAC executive including secretary Heather Hamlin-Gravells and treasurer Pearl Hiemstra, to develop their own budget options.

The school district’s proposed reductions to the 2015/2016 budget include cutting student services such as literacy intervention, music, speech and language support, services for deaf and hard-of-hearing students and eliminating the gifted education program. Significant cuts to counselling, grief counselling and healthy living programs are also outlined.

“Our position is that if there is not enough money for learning resources, grief counselling, mental health, then we need to be cutting right from the top — employee expenses for travel, professional development, all those things should be going down if we are in such dire straits that we have to cut programs that have direct benefits to students,” says Wilkinson.

The DPAC report notes the district enrolment decline should also mean a decline in management and administrative hours at the board office. The DPAC would like more information on how administrative staffing levels relate to the declining enrolment.

Borthistle says administration costs for the district are not out of line.

“Administration costs are four per cent of our total budget, which is very comparable with other school districts of similar size in our province.”

He also notes the provincial government is already requiring cuts to school administration that will mean a $360,000 reduction for School District #83 administration.

“We are looking at ways to meet those targets,” he says.

Employee expenses

Wilkinson says in the past three years, a total of $1.8 million has gone out to pay for school district employee expenses, including $633,986 in 2014 of which $133,685 make up the expenses for eight staff members.

The DPAC report suggests a “significant reduction” in expenses for employee travel and professional development be implemented, including a policy to hold management and school district retreats in school district facilities only.

“Past practices of retreats held at ski resorts should not be happening,” states the report.

Borthistle told the Observer cuts to these retreats were made in a budget from a previous year.

He added that the general public may believe expenses are personal, but that is not the case.

“These are approved business expenses for travel, association fees and professional development and they are signed off to ensure they are compliant with financial office procedures.”

He adds that the board has the authority to set the budget for these items and cuts could be made.

“I will say this: district staff spend a lot of time striving to be transparent and compliant with the goal of accurately reporting these costs.”

Vehicle policy

Another area under scrutiny by the DPAC is vehicle ownership and use, especially for management.

The DPAC report states many of these vehicles are not identified as school district property and are not always used for school district business.

“F150 Platinum Ford trucks at a cost of $60,000 for management personnel are not necessary. Small commuter vehicles economical on fuel should suffice for getting staff around our district. Further, SD83 vehicles should not be available for personal use on weekends and or vacations to haul boats or trailers with,” says the DPAC report.

A Ministry of Finance transportation policy document available online and forwarded from the Ministry of Education outlines an extensive vehicle policy for government vehicle use.

It states: “An employee conducting government business must use the most cost-effective and appropriate mode of transportation, choosing from public transportation, use of a government, rental or private vehicle. It goes on to say, “All government vehicles, unless exempted by the ministry’s executive financial officer or designate, must display a decal according to government standards.”

The lack of identification markings on school district management vehicles is something Johnson says is “on her list of items to look at.”

There is also a section dealing with appropriate use of government vehicles stating: government vehicles must only be used for business purposes.

Exceptions for limited personal use can be made for incidental use while travelling or travel between an employee’s home and workplace when this is a condition of employment.

“Any additional personal use requires approval from the executive financial officer or designate,” states the provincial policy.

The Observer obtained information from a source who asked not to be identified for fear of losing their job. They report the school district owns or leases four Hyundai Santa Fe SUVs including 2015 models, a Ford Escape SUV, a 2015 Ford Edge crossover SUV, two Ford crew cab trucks and a Chevrolet Silverado — all specifically designated for managers. One of the trucks has an additional fifth wheel hitch installed on it, even though sources say the school district owns no fifth-wheel trailers to pull.

“We don’t need fancy trucks. Why are we funding these vehicles on the backs of our kids? That can stop and I think 99 per cent of the parents in the district would agree with me,” Wilkinson told the Observer.

Borthistle confirmed some district staff are provided vehicles in lieu of paying mileage.

“I believe there is a business case that it is a better deal for the school district to provide vehicles as opposed to laying out amounts of cash monthly for mileage expenses.”

The Ministry of Finance policy also addresses this issue.

“Generally, when daily travel exceeds approximately 150 kilometres (or 13,000 kilometres annually), a government vehicle becomes more cost-effective and should be used.”

Wilkinson suggests the school district’s vehicles be equipped with GPS systems to monitor appropriate use and determine whether mileage payments would be more cost-effective.

When asked about personal use of vehicles and whether there are more affordable options, Johnson says the school board will also be reviewing those items as part of the budget process.

Capital costs

The DPAC also had concerns about the school district’s capital budget, which includes the costs for the new administration building under construction next to the Downtown Activity Centre on Shuswap Street.

As mandated by the Ministry of Education, the capital and operational budgets of the school district are entirely separate. Funds from one budget cannot be transferred to the other. This means the cost of the new building is not a part of the operating budget that is facing the $1.8 million cut.

However, the DPAC is concerned about the total taxpayer cost of the project and that promised capital upgrades to the gym and library at Carlin Elementary-Middle School and to the gym at Len Wood Elementary have not been completed.












Technology plan

The proposed DPAC budget would phase in $882,000 in technology enhancement for the school district.

In a report for the school district conducted by IBM, which no longer sells computer systems, the recommendation was to upgrade the school district’s hardware and software. It was noted that the school district is falling behind on the levels of technology required both to facilitate student learning and remain administratively current.

The DPAC report suggests a phased approach, believing this  would be the most fiscally prudent way to update the technology.

“I get the need to stay on top of technology enhancements, but with new technology, it’s not always the best idea to jump in all at once… You want time to work out the bugs. If you are a small business owner, you do these things in stages as you can afford it,” says Wilkinson.

Borthistle, however, says this would put the school district in a position where IT staff would have to maintain two different systems simultaneously, thus creating additional costs and strain on staffing resources. He says the school district is already looking at a two-year implementation.

“It is a lot of money, but we also need to make sure our students are prepared for the current world and to have the technology capabilities so our organization can run efficiently,” he says.

Budget decisions

The school board will make a determination on the budget at its May 12 meeting, and Borthistle notes the board will accept public input right up to that date.

“At the end of the day and as difficult as the reduction process is, we still have nearly $60 million to spend and employ 700 people in our district in an effort to provide quality education. We need to spend that money wisely and we value public input.”

Wilkinson too, encourages parent input on the budget.

“The board gives a lot of weight to what parents have to say. We need parents to be involved to help make a difference for our kids. Now’s the time to speak up.”

She notes the DPAC is trying to by an accountable, effective voice for parents.

“We are not saying our budget is the perfect answer, but it is another option,” says Wilkinson.

The next DPAC meeting will be the day after the budget vote. Wilkinson says everyone is welcome to attend.



Salmon Arm Observer