The budget for the 2015-2016 school year has now been set. It was a most difficult experience and trustees passed the budget with great reluctance.
Bluewater District School Board basically receives all its funding from the Ontario Ministry of Education in the form of grants. We receive allotments for various areas. One of these areas is Special Education. This year the ministry cut our budget for this area by $1.5 million. It has become very necessary that we spend within that allotment.
This means we need to do things differently than we have in the past. It meant reducing 49 EA positions across Bluewater to align with money received from the province. It was a most difficult thing to do. Our Special Education enrolment is down, so a few positions would have been eliminated to match the reduction in the number of students. However, that still leaves a major realignment.
The needs of our Special Education students will still be met. Each of these children is brought before a review committee consisting of their parents and school staff on a yearly basis. Their needs are reviewed and an education plan is developed for the coming school year to meet these needs. This review is still happening. I am confident that each student’s needs will be met, even if the plan looks different than it did previously. A full-scale review of Bluewater’s Special Education delivery model will begin in the fall, which will involve looking at other boards that have experienced reductions to their budgets as well to evaluate the success of their new models.
Another area that we receive funding for is capital - the maintenance of our buildings. The ministry decided about ten years ago that boards needed to do something about the excess space in schools. To this end, they are now giving us much less money to pay for the costs of our empty space. Our Director of Education estimates that last year we spent about $5 million in maintaining this empty space. This is taking away money from other areas such as maintenance, technology, and programming.
So it has become imperative that we ‘right-size’ our schools. This right-sizing can happen in a number of ways: consolidating schools; removing portions of schools; and finding other uses for portions of our schools that will result in our costs of maintaining these spaces being met.
The release of the new ministry Pupil Accommodation Review Guideline has led to the revision of the Bluewater Accommodation Review policy, which is now complete. In September, the trustees will meet to look at the overall Bluewater situation. In October, the senior staff will bring recommendations to the Board. At that time, the schools that will be reviewed in the coming year will be announced.
I do not know when the schools in the Meaford area will be reviewed. However, it will happen.
When it does, a review committee of parents will be formed. Members of the community - specifically Meaford Council and a Meaford Community group for Education co-chaired by Shannon-Lee Wilkie - will be able to give input to the Board. I will be working with you, and for you, to maintain elementary and secondary education in Meaford. It does need to look different, but we will work to have the best possible educational experience for our students.
As a part of this process, Bluewater District School Board held an annual Community Partnership meeting earlier this month. Jaden Calvert, Municipality of Meaford Councillor, and Shannon-Lee Wilkie were in attendance. Board staff outlined our situation. Shannon spoke to the need to keep secondary education in Meaford and of possible ways of doing that.
Lastly, I want to address one more issue that is a great concern to all trustees. The budget we passed has close to a one half million dollar deficit. This shortfall has to be taken from reserves. While this is acceptable in the short term to the Ontario Ministry of Education, it does put us at risk. Our reserves are small. We cannot continue to take money from reserves. We, in fact, need to put money back into reserves in the future.
A board of education budget is indeed difficult. We need to work within the resources that we are given by the Ministry of Education. We are having to make some very difficult decisions to get our financial house in order. But we can see a much brighter future where we are able to allocate more funds into technology and programming to support our students.
It is important to note that Meaford schools will be open in September 2015. Hope all students have a safe summer.