Ontario says it will cover big chunk of HWDSB budget deficit, reducing fears of cuts

·3 min read

Ontario’s Ministry of Education says the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) will not lose nearly $15.2 million due to a student enrolment decline as anticipated, reducing fears of a budget deficit that all but assured cuts to future student programming.

Last week, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced a “stabilization fund” for schools facing budget shortfalls due to low student enrolment — something the HWDSB has advocated for in recent weeks.

The funding is “to help alleviate some of the impacts of unexpected enrolment declines as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic” and would “provide flexibility for school boards to address a range of unanticipated funding issues,” the province said.

Though the province did not initially indicate how much of the funding shortfall it would cover, ministry spokesperson Caitlin Clark told The Spectator on Monday that the board would receive the funding it had lost due to enrolment decline.

The HWDSB announced in late October that it would lose a whopping $15.2 million from the province’s Grants for Student Needs (GSN) program because it was short 1,756 students from what it had projected last spring.

The shortfall was the primary contributor to a budget deficit that board staff have said could amount to $18 million by the end of the year.

With the province agreeing to cover the lost $15.2 million, the board will now face a more manageable deficit of roughly $2.8 million.

“This funding will positively contribute to the reduction of our budget deficit and mitigate the financial impact of the unexpected enrolment decrease we experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said HWDSB chair Alex Johnstone in a statement.

“Staff will review these measures and share revised financial statements with trustees.”

Early in November, in response to the initial funding shortfall, the HWDSB moved to surplus teachers and curb spending across the board in an effort to reduce its deficit by the end of the fiscal year.

A report present at the board’s finance committee suggested the board could find savings by reducing teaching staff, self-contained classes, part-time educational assistants, school budgets, funding for governance and more.

The board has not indicated if any of these cuts will be reinstated now that the province has agreed to foot the shortfall.

Either way, the board will also be tasked with eliminating the remaining deficit in order to balance the budget by the end of the year — a task that is mandated by the province.

Running a school board budget deficit is illegal, according to the Ontario Education Act, though Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government has relaxed the rules during the pandemic to allow school boards to run marginal deficits.

The ministry said in October that it would accept budget deficits that comprise no more than two per cent of a board’s entire budget, which for the HWDSB is roughly $11.2 million.

With an $18-million deficit, the board would exceed the two per cent threshold by approximately $6.8 million, but with a $2.8 million deficit the board would be well within the province’s limit.

Jacob Lorinc, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator