The Louis Riel School Division is projecting a deficit of $7.6 million, citing both pandemic-related expenses and operational losses, and a teacher salary arbitration award.
During a board meeting Tuesday, senior administrators provided the public with an update on finances as the 2020-21 school year nears an end.
Superintendent Christian Michalik said the board office is forecasting significant shortfalls as a result of COVID-19 costs that have yet to be reimbursed by the province and lost revenue, including a $5-million drop in international student program fees.
“We have instructed all schools and departments that we are in a spending freeze so we’re not spending any money that we don’t have to, so whatever we can manage to save between now and the end of the year since we went into remote learning can only help,” said Marna Kenny, secretary-treasurer and chief financial officer, during the meeting. “We are trying very, very hard.”
Trustees discussed challenges with covering unexpected costs since March 2020 when annual funding fails to keep pace with inflation.
The board initially approved its 2020-21 school year budget of $196 million before the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March and an arbitration board ruled on retroactive wage payments for teachers the following month. It has since approved another contract for teachers through to 2021-22.
At the province’s request, the board had initially budgeted for the terms of Bill 28, controversial legislation that aims to freeze public sector wages for the initial two years of four-year contracts, which was later struck down in court.
Reflecting on all of the years Michalik has spent working in the board office, dating back to 2005, he told the Free Press Wednesday he could never have imagined being in the current financial situation. “You’ve got to take into account how things are going before the pandemic hits — and then the pandemic hits,” he said, noting the province has restricted boards’ abilities to raise property taxes in recent years.
On June 9, the education minister wrote to boards to provide government expectations about financial management. In it, Cliff Cullen said layoffs are not to occur, saying “now more than ever, our teachers and staff are critical to protecting the learning environment.”
The letter was sent in the wake of the Winnipeg School Division announcing plans to slash up to 130 teaching jobs to address budget restraints not unlike the ones Louis Riel is facing.
“We can’t turn the power off. We can’t stop filling our school buses with diesel. What are the options? We’re a people business,” said Michalik.
The superintendent said there is nothing frivolous about the board’s spending, rather it has spent big on staffing to accommodate two metres of distancing in schools dating back to Labour Day, and forked out funds for renting outdoor tents and its remote learning school.
Noting ongoing discussions with Manitoba Education about finances since April 2020, chairwoman Louise Johnston responded to Cullen’s June 9 letter to reiterate the “necessity” for a commitment of support for Louis Riel.
“Despite reallocating resources from our existing budgets, reallocating staff and utilizing savings realized from last spring, the board is still projecting a shortfall of $1.6 million, plus $1 million in lost revenues from regular operations and a $5-million shortfall in its International Student Program revenues,” Johnston wrote on June 11.
In a statement Wednesday, a provincial spokesperson said the department has been working with the division and continues to do so.
Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press