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Deficit budget for Protestant school district

Protestant school trustees held their noses while voting in favour of a $1.8-million deficit Wednesday evening during the district’s budget deliberations. The district will spend $62.

Protestant school trustees held their noses while voting in favour of a $1.8-million deficit Wednesday evening during the district’s budget deliberations.

The district will spend $62.3 million in the upcoming 2010/11 school year, about 60 per cent of which goes to teacher salaries and benefits, but expects to take in only $60.5 million.

The deficit situation arose from the provincial budget, passed in February, which didn’t contain funding to cover a three per cent salary increase teachers are due to receive in September, said associate superintendent of finance Michael Brenneis.

To cover its shortfall, the district will draw $1.5 million from its reserves, leaving just $319,000 in reserves. Brenneis called the budget one of the most challenging in recent memory.

He said the budget comes as close as possible to maintaining the spirit of a request by Education Minister Dave Hancock that school boards keep staffing levels up in this time of fiscal challenge.

Trustees were unanimous in expressing disappointment in the level of government funding but they also felt the budget was the best they could do to prevent financial woes from affecting students in the classroom.

“I will support the budget but I have to say that I am very unhappy with the situation that we are facing,” said trustee Joan Trettler.

“I’m very disappointed that a school board has to approve a $1.8 million-deficit due to a shortfall in funding that was promised,” said trustee Gerry Martins. “Nevertheless we are fortunate in that we do have reserves and I am cautiously optimistic that there will be some light at the end of the tunnel.”

In the fall of 2007 the provincial government signed a five-year deal with the Alberta Teachers’ Association that tied teacher salary increases to the Alberta Weekly Earnings Index. The teachers union and school boards both interpret the agreement as a promise to provide funding for the increases.

“I too think that it’s unconscionable that when a contract for five years is signed, that it is not honoured,” said board chair Morag Pansegrau. “It means that individual boards have to make up that shortfall.”

Hancock has been asking school boards to run deficit budgets as “bridge financing” for the government rather that trim teaching staff until the government can come up with the money to cover salary increases.

“We’ll trust Minister Hancock, who’s said things will get better … and have faith that we will get some additional funding,” Pansegrau said.

Trustee Judy Huisman was the only one who didn’t think Hancock would deliver.

“Cynic that I am, I guess, I do not place much hope in that, personally,” she said.

“It makes me very nervous and quite angry that the government seems to put us and health at the end of the line when it comes to money,” she said.

As its budget stands right now, St. Albert Protestant Schools will cut about 20 full-time teaching positions and 14 support staff. These adjustments are due to a projected decrease in enrolment and not the salary-funding gap, said superintendent Barry Wowk.

District school principals are always conservative when projecting the number of students they’ll have in the fall, which leads to trimming of teaching rosters, he said. But student numbers typically increase over the summer, followed by the hiring back of some teachers.

This year is different in that it’s the first time in Wowk’s five-year tenure that he knows for sure at budget time the district will be short money in the upcoming year. He’s concerned those schools and departments that have saved up reserves for future projects will spend the money impulsively for fear of losing it to cutbacks.

“I’m worried about a sense of panic,” Wowk said.

He is also hoping for news from Hancock’s office.

“In my heart I’m hoping that, by some miracle we’ll get that funding and we can use the reserves for what it was intended,” he said.