Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition February 21, 2015
Budgeting for one of the largest employers in the city while serving a “client base” of more than 8,000 members can be tricky business. It is often the job of CEOs and financial managers in companies and comes with a level of pay befitting the responsibilities associated with that task.
It is also a job many communities such as ours saddle school trustees with, in a thankless scenario of spend enough to meet the needs, or trim to maintain low costs, causing issue with staff in the process.
Most do not envy them and frankly, when faced with some of the impossible scenarios they are placed in, there’s little wonder why there is apathy among people for becoming more engaged or involved in the process.
As this round of budgeting played out for the Brandon School Division board of trustees, there was an appetite for austerity in their first budget since the election. Much like their city counterparts, they strived for a minimal cost increase to the ratepayer while trying to slowly whittle away at the need.
It is generally the case with election year budgeting that there was a portion of the plan already well in place by the former custodians of the public purse. For the most part, the school division has accomplished this with the tiniest of hikes — a 0.008 per cent increase, equating to pennies a year for the oft-mentioned $222,000 benchmark property in the city of Brandon.
With any budget, there are hits and misses and this one is no different. Some of the needs will be rectified, such as the addition of a second superintendent’s position — a move that should also address a succession plan for future senior administrations.
As well, the addition of further aid in the social services sector of our schools seems to be a positive step, albeit at the expense of not reinstating more classroom teaching positions.
It balances spending for the ratepayer and allows for a status quo on many of the services currently in place in our community. This budget in some instances has, however small, addressed a need for future growth as well.
Where it misses, however, is a growing concern that continues to burden school planning across many divisions in this province.
The K-3 initiative imposed on municipalities by the provincial government is closing in. In the beginning, the amount offered up by the government to help pay for the initiative was in the neighbourhood of $20 million provincewide — but it would seem little of that has been trickling down to the school board level where the changes are mandated to take place.
Brandon School Division was handed the lion’s share of costs associated with the K-3 initiative, and in being proactive a few years back, hired teachers to meet future demands. They were promptly chastised by the province for their efforts.
Further to that, back in March 2014, board chair Mark Sefton stated their mandate was to “balance the needs of the students, and the concerns of the community over taxation” — a stark contrast to then-education minister James Allum’s opinion on the position. He and the government further slapped the wrists of trustees for considering and ultimately cutting 11 teaching positions in the school division.
Few would suggest the trustees enjoyed paring down the numbers while facing increased enrolment. It was, as Sefton alluded to, the need of their board to maintain that balance, which is key to their mandate.
Secondly, our division is clearly bursting at the seams — trustees make no bones about the need for a new school in Brandon’s south end.
Many calls have been initiated with the province as to the need to accommodate growth, but thus far, the rubber remains far from the road.
Coincidentally, since some of those initial discussions took place, the province announced a couple of new schools will be built in South Pointe and Riverbend in Winnipeg — both potential swing ridings come next election.
But I digress.
In crafting a budget, our trustees have done an admirable job in weighing the overall needs of this community. They will not win the favour of everyone, but at the very least, they have taken control of what is in front of them — making decisions they hope benefit students, staff and the taxpayers of the City of Brandon.
Supplement: For those interested here is a chart illustrating the declining enrolment in Louis Riel & Pembina Trails School Divisions where some of the new schools will be built. Contrastingly Brandon School Division is one of the fastest growing school divisions in the province and still awaits a commitment from the government to expand.