SD5 passes $74.4M balanced budget, pushes province for more capital funding

Board of Education advocating for middle school in Fernie, major renovations to Mount Baker Secondary School

School District 5 Board of Education passed a $74.4 million balanced budget at a special meeting earlier in June.

However, while trustees passed a provincially mandated balanced budget, an additional ‘needs’ budget was also submitted to illustrate the growing challenges across the region.

“This ‘Needs Budget’ reflects the educational reality of District needs rather than the budgetary reality of government grants” said Frank Lento, the chair of the SD5 Board of Education. “We need government to recognize this reality and to work with Boards constructively to ensure a strong public education system.”

Lento added that the province must acknowledge the education funding challenges faced by districts across B.C.

“We will continue to provide a Needs Budget with our annual budget, and to present to the Select Standing Committee each year as long as there are unmet educational needs in our District.”

The SD5 board continues to advocate local issues to the provincial government, according to an SD5 press release.

Trustee Chris Johns recently made a presentation to the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services during a meeting that solicits public input on the provincial budget. Feedback collected is compiled into a report outlining the concerns and funding requests made by individuals or organizations.

“Government is well aware that the K-12 system is experiencing cost pressures as a result of inflation (and aging school facilities), said Trustee Johns. “This information –along with a number of recommendations – continues to be provided to them in the Select Standing Committee’s annual budget reports.”

In last year’s SSCFGS report, a section was solely devoted to the challenges in SD5, noting overcapacity and excessive use of portables in Fernie, while also highlighting $400,000 in emergency repairs in the music and drama rooms at Mount Baker Secondary School to main structural integrity of the building.

During John’s presentation to the committee this year, he focused on advocating for a new middle school in Fernie, major renovations to MBSS and increasing special education funding across the district.

Fernie, which is growing at a rate of 18 per cent, is one of the fastest-growing communities in the country. Isabella Dicken Elementary School will soon be using nine portables on site, and is projected to have 626 students enrolled for the next school year.

The board says is it currently working with the Ministry of Education to replace the portables through an expansion of the school building, a large 600-plus elementary school is ‘not practical’, which is why trustees are advocating for a middle school.

Fernie currently doesn’t have a middle school, as elementary schools feed into the city’s secondary school, which runs Grade 7 through to Grade 12.

While the board has been advocating for a replacement school for over a decade, a projected capital cost of up to $70 million for a new building has been a long-standing roadblock.

“We’ve been spending money, millions of dollars, in the school enhancement plan, carbon neutral programs, the capital bylaws, the annual facility grant.,” said Johns. “We’ve been using those moneys, taking that away from other buildings in our communities to make sure that this building is still suitable.”

“The replacement of a school the size of Mount Baker would be somewhere between $60 million and $70 million whereas a major renovation would be somewhere around $20 million to $30 million. So we’re now looking at renovation rather than replacement as a prudent measure to provide equal opportunities for learning throughout BC.”

Ensuring sufficient funding for special education is also another priority advocated by the board.

“We know that all students have unique educational needs,” says Lento. “But for approximately 13 per cent of our students, the funding we receive is insufficient to adequately support those needs.”

According to Johns, a portion of special needs funding was deregulated by the BC Liberals in 2001. Since then, the board has provided between five to six per cent in additional support out of the district’s Basic Allocation Fund.

Even though the Ministry has bumped up special needs funding by one per cent, SD5 will still need to take 6.4 per cent from the BAF — roughly $4 million — to meet the minimum needs for students with special needs.

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