Geoff Johnson: School district budget brings back the gold standard
School District 61 (Victoria) Independent Budget Review Report may become the gold standard for School District Budget Process Reviews.
Written by retired Secretary-Treasurer Joan Axford, arguably the most experienced and knowledgeable person in the province when it comes to understanding school district budgets, the report clarifies a number of issues.
First of all, he politely corrects the tendency of people, in the absence of any real knowledge of the subject, to seek simple solutions (senior executives are overpaid and there are too many of them anyway).
Second, the report explains in detail the implications for school districts of the fact that the operating budget (of which approximately 92% goes to employee compensation) must be disbursed twice in the same calendar year.
In public education, there are two official budget plans.
The first, for the following school year, is approved by school counselors no later than June 30 of the ending school year.
This plan is based on enrollment projections for the following September – a sort of statistical guess on how many children will show up in September, how many teachers and classrooms will be needed, and what income will be needed. government approved to meet this need.
The second budget is not finally approved until February 28 of the following school year, when the actual enrollment is known from the September enrollment count, and it is too late to change the decisions that made the system work. .
By then, school districts have some knowledge of other revenues beyond the grants generated from full-time enrollments in the previous September.
There is much more to it, including labor agreements, international student tuition fees, holdback funds, special program allowances, and all the contingencies and accumulated reserves that seem predictable.
According to the Axford report, the reason for a certain surplus in the Greater Victoria School District’s 2019/20 budget is attributable to the reduction in staff replacement due to the pandemic ($ 1,601,071), the reduction in the costs of utilities due to school closures ($ 492,610) and reduced procurement costs due to school closures ($ 3,127,653), resulting in a surplus of $ 5,221,334 in 2019 -2020.
All otherwise unpredictable budgetary influences.
An operating budget surplus for a BC school district is a double-edged sword, as a surplus of over $ 5 million over spending over $ 200 million, while still providing some reassurance in the face of the unforeseen demands of the coming year can quickly become politically unacceptable if it is felt that the money “should have gone to the classrooms”.
Like I said, this is an ill-informed response to a very complicated tax situation, but it makes for good opinion pieces in the media.
On the flip side, a 2015 report from Ernst and Young that examined BC school districts and their operating surpluses indicates that a 3% surplus is not only acceptable but wise.
The densely packed 27-page report contains much more, but it largely explains the complexities of an organization like the Greater Victoria School District trying to balance expected revenues of $ 204 million with planned spending of around $ 212 million. of dollars.
This balance is to be achieved for the benefit of approximately 20,000 immediate clients (children) in 44 buildings with approximately 1,100 teaching staff and around 1,000 other non-teaching staff.
The full report is online at SD61 and is worth reading more than once, especially for anyone serious about understanding the district’s current tax challenges.
And, like any report of real value, Joan Axford’s review includes some helpful recommendations.
The first two recommend that the district “continue the work of understanding and transparency around budgets” and that “for program reduction options that the board does not implement in this budget, immediately establish a group of work to assess how these programs might be offered. in a more cost effective manner.
The review also recommends that “the board receive regular updates on system impacts and adjustments resulting from budget decisions”.
Finally, the report suggests that “the board could consider options that span two school years to allow for increased engagement on the difficult options available.”
As someone who has always advocated that school districts pay more attention to communicating with a wider audience, the last sentence of the review caught my attention: “The report also provides considerations for the board and the board. senior management on improving sharing and processes going forward ”.
Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.
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