‘It’s still not enough’: Hamilton’s public school board struggling with budget

·4 min read

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board is planning to significantly curb spending amid reports that its financial deficit could be as much as $8.8 million by the end of the school year.

At a financial committee meeting Thursday evening, board administrator Stacey Zucker told trustees that the public board will not be receiving an anticipated $15.2 million in funding from the province due to the board’s declining enrolment.

On top of that, Zucker said the board will also not be receiving an anticipated $700,000 typically drawn from school rental spaces, bringing the total reduction in revenue to roughly $15.9 million.

“As you can tell, that’s a pretty significant number,” Zucker told trustees.

The major revenue shortfall follows news from earlier this week that Hamilton’s public board will have roughly 1,700 fewer students enrolled in elementary schools than previously anticipated.

The enrolment numbers affect the amount of funding the board receives from the province’s Grants for Student Needs (GSN) program, which typically offers money to boards for a variety of needs including special education, professional development for education, language programming, equipment and supplies, and more.

In light of the declining numbers, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) has planned to surplus roughly 33 teachers and curb spending across the board in an effort to balance the budget or, at best, reduce its deficit by the end of the fiscal year.

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

The board’s biggest opportunity for savings is by reducing teaching staff to the tune of $2.3 million, the report notes.

It is also considering moving $6 million from its reserve funds to its annual budget to help reduce the deficit.

“This is difficult work in an unprecedented time,” said board chair Alex Johnstone.

“School boards in Hamilton have been placed in the most difficult position. We have the province telling the school boards to use their own funding, which we’ve done, and yet it’s still not enough.”

At best, Zucker said, the 2020-21 budget would have a deficit of $2.8 million.

Johnstone says the board needs to appeal to the province for more funding, which has granted some funding to school boards at greater risk of COVID-19 spread.

“I’m very concerned about disparities across the province between boards who do have greater funding to access and those who don’t. There are boards that are receiving additional funds from the province, such as Toronto, York and Peel, because they’re considered to be in high-priority zones. And yet there are boards like ours who are also in a position where we’re experiencing significantly more community spread (of COVID-19) yet we’re not able to access additional funds, at least not to the same extent.”

The board has scheduled a meeting for Oct. 26 to discuss appealing to the province for increased funding and to approve measures to dip into its reserve funds to help reduce the deficit.

On Thursday, the board told families it was preparing an “extensive and complex” staffing reorganization that will bump 33 teachers from part-time to the supply list.

The number of teachers surplused was initially going to be roughly 190, but the board’s decision to access its reserve funds to cover the costs of smaller classrooms and teachers helped bring that number down to 33, said Johnstone.

“A typical year may see a small variation between projected and actual enrolment. This year, with more families keeping children out of school, our fall enrolment is significantly below our spring projections,” the board wrote.

In total, the board is short 1,756 students, many of whom are kindergarten age and whose families have opted to home-school them rather than enrol them in virtual or in-person education offered through the HWDBS, Zucker said.

Now, some elementary classes will have to converge with each other while educators are moved to different classes or schools.

Jeff Sorensen, president of the public board’s elementary teachers’ union, says the teachers have been learning, as early as Thursday morning, that they’re no longer going to have the job they’ve been doing since September.

Jacob Lorinc, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator