The local school district posted a $564,000 surplus last year, according to the auditor’s report released on Sept. 12.

The surplus means the Nicola-Similkameen School District 58 is better able to handle enrolment declines, which it anticipates for at least the next three years. The cumulative surplus is now $5.7 million.

“We are in a healthy state,” SD 58 Secretary Treasurer Kevin Black said. “As enrolment starts to increase, we aren’t going to get any additional dollars… If we experience a surge in enrolment, this provides us with a bit of a cushion.”

Without that surplus, SD 58 would have to eliminate expenses – and with 85 per cent spent on teachers’ salaries, job cuts would be a likely outcome, he said.

Administration originally predicted a $500,000 shortfall in February and the variance in the audit is due to lower salaries and more grants than expected.

“Some additional sources of revenue come in and, at the same time, some activities that you expect to occur didn’t occur,” he said.

Among the additional grants was funding to support updated student counts in May, which contributed a portion of the $1.5 million increase. Also, salaries and benefits are about $1.1 million lower than expected.

“We budget on a conservative basis,” Black said. “If we don’t know who we are going to hire, we put them in at a certain scale and I budget for higher than the average [salary].”

For example, savings can occur when an older, higher-paid teacher leaves and a new teacher arrives.

The Ministry of Education’s decision last year to limit funding protection to 98.5 per cent from the previous 100 per cent means a steady decrease in the amount of funding.

The Ministry said SD 58 is already overfunded by nearly 500 students, Black said.

“So until we get 500 more students, we’d pay for additional enrolment without getting additional dollars.”

SD 58 Superintendent Bob Peacock said the surplus helps, but he is always concerned with declining enrolment.

Since the district’s enrolment peak in the 1999-00 school year, the number of students in the district has declined by 1,076 – from 3,208 to 2,132 throughout the district, which includes Princeton. This year, Princeton’s students count for 22 per cent of the district’s enrolment.

“Declining enrolment is always a concern, particularly when you get into the secondary schools,” Peacock said. “When the number of students declines, you have less teachers and so you have to offer fewer courses.”

The district’s enrolment decline is at about 155, 30 more than expected at elementary and high schools in both Merritt and Princeton. Including the alternate programs, the district is down about 200, Peacock said.

Diamond Vale Elementary and Central Elementary are down a combined 50 students, despite the CMS closure that meant Grade 7 students would stay in elementary school.

The biggest increases are at Bench Elementary at 13, and Collettville with seven additional students.

Funding protection is pegged at 98.5 per cent for schools with declining enrolment, a change that was partially responsible for the CMS closure.

The auditor’s report was conducted by McConnell Voelkl Chartered Accountants.